Three overnight fires result in death of one woman, another person injured _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Sophia Thompson, left, walks through the parking lot of a small apartment complex at 855 N. Carrollton Avenue in Baton Rouge Wednesday morning, past the charred second story apartments hours after a fire there in the early morning claimed the life of one. She knows a resident there who goes to her church, and was checking on her. The man at right, not a resident, declined to be identified.

Three residential fires burned in different parts of East Baton Rouge Parish on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, affecting more than 30 people and leaving one woman dead.

The first fire occurred in the Gardere area, the second in the Belaire neighborhood and the third — the fatal fire — on North Carrollton Avenue in the Smiley Heights neighborhood.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office on Wednesday afternoon identified the woman who died as 59-year-old Debra Speights. She died of toxic effects from smoke inhalation, said Shane Evans, chief investigator for the coroner’s office.

One other person suffered smoke-related injuries in one of the other fires.

“Our hearts go out to the families affected today by these devastating fires,” Bobbi Zaunbrecher, executive director of the Louisiana Capital Area Chapter of The American Red Cross, said Wednesday in a news release.

The first fire was sparked shortly before 9 p.m. at an apartment in the 12200 block of LaMargie Avenue near Belaire High School, according to the Baton Rouge Fire Department.

A renter told fire investigators he went to take a shower while cooking, but by the time he finished bathing, he began to smell smoke, Mark Miles, a Fire Department spokesman, said in a news release.

The fire took about 20 minutes to bring under control, Miles said.

The renter was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, but he refused to be taken to a hospital, Miles said.

Two of the four apartments in the complex were damaged by the blaze, Miles said, while the other two smelled of smoke after the fire.

As firefighters tamed the Belaire neighborhood blaze, first responders across town were called out to the 8200 block of Skysail Avenue, where a family of 11 was displaced by a fire sparked by a problem with a clothes dryer, according to the St. George Fire Department.

Eldon Ledoux, a St. George Fire Department spokesman, said firefighters were called to the scene at about 9:40 p.m. It took about 20 minutes to control the blaze.

Even though the apartment’s smoke alarms worked properly and it only took firefighters about three minutes to arrive on scene after receiving word about the blaze, the residence was badly damaged by smoke and flames, Ledoux said.

“It truly points out how quickly small fires can become big fires in a big hurry,” Ledoux said.

The American Red Cross provided assistance to the four-generational family displaced by the fire. The organization also helped those displaced by the Belaire fire and the third fire, which occurred at an apartment complex on North Carrollton Avenue early Wednesday morning.

The Baton Rouge Fire Department responded to the scene shortly after 1 a.m. to find the second floor of the complex engulfed in flames, Miles, the department spokesman, said.

Fire investigators weren’t able to determine the cause of the blaze because the extent of the damage near the point of origin was so severe, Miles said.

However, investigators were able to find the cause was unintentional. No foul play was suspected, Miles said.

All of the apartment’s occupants were able to escape the blaze without harm except for Speights. Eight of the complex’s 10 apartments were occupied at the time of the blaze, Miles said.

About half of the complex’s second floor was destroyed by the fire.

The American Red Cross said its volunteers are providing those affected by the fires with food, clothing, shelter and other supplies. Case workers will meet with families individually to develop long-term plans in the aftermath of the blazes, Melissa Duplantier, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said.

Sandy Joslyn, a Red Cross volunteer who responded to the complex Wednesday morning, said most of the apartment’s residents were standing outside without shoes on when she arrived. It was dark and cold, Joslyn said.

“They were in their night clothes because many of them were sleeping,” she said.

Some of the residents barely escaped in time, Joslyn said, because smoke alarms may have failed and they didn’t smell the smoke.

“It was a frightening experience for some of them,” she said.

Joslyn said volunteers ended up helping at least 10 people who were displaced by the fire. With the help of the Red Cross, those displaced will be connected with local chapters of the Salvation Army, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Baton Rouge Food Bank.

“They go the extra mile to help out our clients,” Joslyn said of the partner agencies.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.