Family struggling with tragedy

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 25, 2010

NATCHEZ — Latoya Sullivan’s eyes filled with tears at just the mention of her dear friend Danielle Graves’ name.

She shook visibly as she stood near the burned ruins of her friend’s temporary house, describing the friendship the two shared since childhood.

“We are lifelong best friends,” she said. “We’ve been friends since we were students together at McLaurin (Elementary School). We’ve shared a lot of good times and made a lot of good memories.”

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Graves was badly burned in a morning fire at a East Oak Street residence in Natchez; her two young sons, 2 and 3, were killed in the fire that engulfed the house.

Graves’ stepsister Connie Murphy said Graves attempted to rescue her sons from the burning house and received most of her injuries at that time. Sullivan said Graves’ dedication to her children surely led to her actions.

“She loves her children,” Sullivan said. “They are her life. She had a lot of medical problems with her first two pregnancies and wasn’t even sure she was going to be able to carry the babies so she has a real close bond, a special love for all of her children.”

Graves’ oldest daughter was at school during the fire.

Sullivan said Graves had been living at the house with Makita Smith and her family for just a few months.

“I had just taken her around to get applications to find her an apartment,” she said. “This was just a temporary place for her.”

Sullivan said she and Graves are more like sisters than best friends.

“I had just brought some shoes and clothes to this house for those babies,” Sullivan said. “We love each other and take care of each other like sisters.”

Murphy said her family is struggling to come to terms with the tragic events.

“I don’t know how we are going to go on from this,” she said.

And just as the Graves family struggles to understand Wednesday’s events, the Smith family also has heavy hearts.

Krystal Smith said she talked to her cousin Makita Smith less than 30 minutes before the fatal fire started.

“I came over here to pick her up and take her two boys to school,” she said. “I saw the fire trucks and said ‘Please Lord, don’t let that be at her house,’ but it was.”

Krystal Smith said though her family is close and always there for each other, Wednesday’s tragedy left her with a feeling of helplessness.

“She’s really, really upset right now,” she said. “We are a very close family, and this is devastating.”

Phyllis Morris, Makita Smith’s aunt, was teaching at AJFC Head Start when she heard of the fire and headed to East Oak.

Surrounded by friends, family and neighbors, Morris said the she doesn’t know how the family will ever recover from Wednesday’s events.

“As a family, we don’t know which way to go right now,” she said. “This is just tragic.”

Graves was airlifted from Natchez Regional Medical Center to Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., Wednesday morning.

Makita Smith was taken from the scene to a local hospital after becoming emotionally overwhelmed at the scene. Krystal Smith said she believes Makita Smith also received some fire-related injuries.