One of two young sisters has died after being badly burned when two vans parked side-by-side caught fire outside a Fridley Walmart, and manslaughter charges filed Wednesday say a man’s hot stove in the van next to the girls’ vehicle ignited the blaze.
Six-year-old Ty’rah White died Tuesday night while being treated at HCMC, said Anoka County Sheriff’s Lt. Daniel Douglas. Her 9-year-old sister, Taraji, remained in critical condition late Wednesday afternoon, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Both were taken by ambulance Tuesday from the store in the 8400 block of NE. University Avenue to HCMC shortly after the fire erupted about 7:10 a.m.
The daughters of 33-year-old Essie McKenzie of Coon Rapids were alone in the van for 45 minutes to an hour as their mother shopped in the store, said Fridley Police Lt. Jim Mork.
The Sheriff’s Office is referring the case to the county’s Child Protective Services “because the children were left in the van for quite some time,” Douglas said. McKenzie has one other child, 11-year-old son Terrell, who was out of state at the time.
“Her siblings Terrell and Taraji were her best friends!” a fundraising page started online by the family quoted the mother as saying. “The morning of the incident Ty’rah told her siblings Terrell and Taraji to ‘come on in guys, group hug.’ ” Ty’rah then told her big bro ‘safe travels’ as he and his grandma Sheena headed to Arizona!”
Mork said the girls might have been sleeping at the time and added that leaving children of that age alone in a vehicle is not against the law.
The van occupied by the children is part of a fleet owned by Universal Transit Services, based in Champlin. Company owner Emiru Hika said McKenzie was a driver for him until July 25 and was not supposed to be using the vehicle.
Roberto L. Hipolito, 70, of Long Beach, Calif., was charged with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of negligent fire. Hipolito remains jailed before a court appearance Thursday morning.
The charges say Hipolito admitted to authorities that he was using a stove near the van, which had North Carolina plates, to cook that morning while the van was parked outside the store and then placed it in the back of the vehicle. He said he and his wife had slept in the vehicle overnight in the parking lot.
Video surveillance from moments before the blaze showed Hipolito cooking something on the stove as it sat on the pavement behind the van.
“After cooking, and without significant time to allow the stove to cool, [Hipolito] puts the stove in the rear of the vehicle,” the complaint read.
Hipolito told law enforcement that he tossed pillows and blankets in where the stove was located and then drove the van to a closer parking spot, the criminal complaint continued.
Hipolito said he then went in the store, and the fire began within a couple of minutes.
As firefighters were dousing the flames, the charges read, McKenzie “ran out of the store screaming that her kids were in one of the vehicles.”
Hipolito’s wife fled from the vehicle unharmed and tried to remove belongings, but the flames were too intense, the complaint read. A car on the other side of their van also suffered fire damage.