An anguished relative Monday identified a family’s three children killed in a house fire over the weekend in north Minneapolis.
Killed in the blaze that started shortly before midnight Saturday were the three children of Taneisha Stewart: Latorious, 6, Latora, 5, and Latorianna, who was about to turn 2, said Patsy Thompson, an aunt who lives in Illinois. It was the family’s first night living in the rental house.
As the investigation into the deadly fire continued Monday, city officials said the landlord who rented the house to the family had complied with required inspections and had not received any citations. Still unclear, however, is why natural gas service had not been turned on at the house, as is required by city ordinance.
Stewart told reporters she had been unable to turn on the furnace in the two-story house in the 2700 block of Penn Avenue N., and that she had turned on the oven for warmth. Fire Chief John Fruetel confirmed that firefighters found an open oven door and believed the fire had started at or near the stove.
Between Oct. 1 and April 30, residential buildings in Minneapolis must be able to provide heat that can be maintained at a minimum of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. If the heat isn’t working, landlords are expected to notify the city and provide a temporary heating source, said Mike Rumppe, deputy director of housing inspection services.
“Whether somebody is moving in or not moving in, it should be done by October 1 of every year,” he said.
Rumppe said the city encourages tenants to first take up heating problems with their landlord, and then notify the city if they aren’t remedied. It’s unclear how the process played out before Saturday’s fire.
Friend Ralpheal Terry said Stewart “had turned her oven on because the landlord said he was going to have somebody come down to fix the furnace.” The landlord, Dung Tu, of Shakopee, could not be reached for comment Monday. But earlier, he told KSTP-TV that he’d set up an appointment with the utility company for Saturday, but that no one had come to make the repairs. He said he had scheduled another appointment for Sunday.
A spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy said an appointment had been scheduled for Oct. 7, then moved up to Oct. 4 at the landlord’s request.
A fire department spokesman on Monday declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, adding that he would “send updates as I receive them.”
Stewart, who said she was at home at the time of the fire, was not injured. Shortly after the fire had been knocked down Sunday morning, she recounted to relatives how she had tried to run back into the burning house, but was driven back by flames.
The number of people killed in fires nationwide has fallen in recent years, thanks to more buildings being constructed with fire-resistant materials, and safety improvements such as smoke detectors and sprinklers.
Citing news reports, the U.S. Fire Administration said that 1,720 people have died nationwide so far this year as a result of home fires.
Overall, the number of fire fatalities fell more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2011, the last year for which data were available, the agency reported.
Prayer service and funeral
State officials said there have now been seven fire fatalities in Minneapolis this year.
Thompson, the children’s aunt, said the family is now planning not only a funeral for the “little angels” but a prayer service Wednesday, on what would have been Latorianna’s second birthday. A vigil is also planned for 6 p.m. Tuesday, at Holsey Church, 1229 Logan Av. N., in Minneapolis.
The aunt said Stewart had just moved away from her husband and had been living in the Twin Cities with her mother until “her little place” on Penn Avenue became available. Stewart moved in Saturday and had yet to furnish it, Thompson said.
“It’s really devastating,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to figure out how this caught on fire to burn up three children. There was nothing in the house to catch fire to — furniture, curtains, nothing. They were sleeping on the floor.”
The house was last valued at $63,000 and was purchased by Tu in 2013. He previously owned two other properties in the same area, one of which was licensed as a rental.
North Side businessman Phillip Murphy said he approached Tu on Sunday at the scene of the fire and asked him about the house having several windows that were boarded up before the fire and about the heat being off.
Tu didn’t explain the boards on the windows, Murphy said, but the landlord did say “the furnace was not in working condition. He said he had an appointment with [CenterPoint Energy’s] Service Plus on the 7th.”
According to the inspection records released by the city:
After plumbing, electrical and furnace systems were approved by the city, Tu received a provisional license to rent the house in December 2013. The following April, he hired CenterPoint Energy to work on the furnace. An inspector visited the house the next month but could not get in to check on a “minor repair.” The provisional license was renewed in August 2014 and the license was approved without provisional status in February of 2015.
Officials said Tu has been billed for this year’s rental license, but it’s unclear if he has paid.
In June of 2014, six violations were noted by an inspector: a broken guardrail on the basement stairs, a missing hard-wire smoke alarm for a first-floor bedroom, inferior exterior paint, repairs needed under a first-floor window, cracks in house’s foundation, and a “squirrel hole” in a roof overhang. All were resolved by February 2015.