CONVENT — Two people died in a fire early Friday that tore through an eight-unit public housing complex in St. James Parish, state fire officials said.
The blaze, reported to authorities shortly after 1 a.m., caused the roof to collapse on most of the one-story brick structure and left only charred wall studs inside the most damaged section.
Union-Convent Volunteer Fire Department firefighters and other first responders were able to remove about 25 people from the apartments at 6202-101 Rev. Thomas Scott St., Convent, the State Fire Marshal’s Office said in a news release.
But the fire took the lives of tenants Shirley M. Howard, 59 , and Ray Mitchell, 54, fire and public housing officials said.
Mitchell and Howard, a former New Orleans resident who lost her home in Hurricane Katrina, were dating and had stayed overnight in Howard’s unit, her relatives said.
Shirley Howard’s son, Corey Howard, 33, of New Orleans, said he received calls and texted pictures of the burning unit from relatives who also live on Rev. Thomas Scott Street.
Corey Howard said that when he learned one of the burning apartment’s was his mother’s, he and his wife rushed to Convent.
Personnel with the Louisiana Capital Area Chapter of the Red Cross said in a news release they were helping two children and eight adults with shelter, clothing, food, replacement medications and medical equipment.
Dana Groover, executive director of the St. James Parish Housing Authority, which oversees the eight-unit complex as well as additional complexes on Rev. Thomas Scott, said nine people’s names were on leases for the units.
She said the additional people escorted from the complex may have been visitors or other people living in the apartments unknown to the authority.
Fire investigators have no clear cause for the apartment complex fire, but State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said Friday they were looking at several sources, including wall heaters, electrical appliances and cigarettes.
He said investigators reported that the fire began on the ground floor and worked up into the complex’s common attic and spread quickly.
The apartment complex dates from 1976. Browning said that if the structure were built today, fire codes would have required fire breaks in the attic and a sprinkler system.
At the scene Friday, neighbors, residents and Shirley Howard’s relatives were saying only one smoke alarm could be heard going off during the fire.
Demetra West Howard, 43, of New Orleans, Shirley Howard’s daughter-in-law, said that her mother-in-law was planning to move out because of the conditions at the complex and had complained about her smoke alarm not working. Howard said her mother-in-law had tried to get housing authority officials to fix it.
“She was supposed to be at my house yesterday,” Demetra West Howard said.
Groover said Housing Authority officials have been working on an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish that complex and others next door and relocate residents into a new facility.
Nonetheless, the now-gutted units passed an annual HUD inspection on Oct. 14, Groover said.
Groover also said she was surprised to hear of Shirley Howard’s concerns about her smoke alarm and said the HUD inspector found all smoke alarms were working in 50 units reviewed across the parish.