Two children killed in morning blaze

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 25, 2010

NATCHEZ — Neighbors, friends and family could only grasp hands and form a prayer circle Wednesday morning as fear turned to gut-wrenching sorrow for two young boys found dead in a house fire.

The crowds gathered quickly at the end of East Oak Street as firefighters battled the blaze that took the lives of Gaylyn Graves, 3, and Landon Graves, 2.

The brothers were found in their bedroom, Coroner James Lee said, where the fire started, Natchez Fire Chief Oliver Stewart said. Their mother, Danielle Graves, was also badly burned, reportedly while trying to save her sons.

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Stewart said the fire call came in at approximately 8:54 a.m., and by the time crews arrived at the house, the fire had spread through the entire structure.

“There is only one window on the right side of the house, and fire was coming out of that,” Stewart said. “Fire was also exiting through the eaves at the top and through the front and back of the house and there was heavy smoke in the house.”

Two Natchez Fire Department engines and a ladder truck responded to the fire.

“The 2-year-old boy was found in bed, and the 3-year-old boy was under a window in that bedroom,” Lee said. “This is a terrible tragedy for this family and the community.”

He said the bodies have been sent to Jackson for a full autopsy, but it appears the cause of death is consistent with “severe smoke inhalation and severe burns.”

Seven people — the deceased boys, three adults and two other boys — were in the house at the time of the fire.

Danielle Graves was transported to Natchez Regional Medical Center before being airlifted to Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga.

Graves’ stepsister Connie Murphy said Graves attempted to re-enter the house to rescue the children.

“She was trying to save those babies when she got burned so badly,” Murphy said.

The primary resident of the house, Makita Smith, was also taken to a local hospital after being overcome with emotion at the scene of the fire, Natchez Police Lt. Craig Godbold said.

“I think she became hysterical at the scene and had to be transported to the hospital,” Godbold said. “It was actually her house that caught on fire.”

Graves, her three children, Graves’ brother Justin Graves, Smith and her two children were all living in the house.

Smith’s children, who attend Frazier Primary School, were able to escape from the house unharmed.

Danielle Graves’ oldest child was at school during the fire, Murphy said.

Justin Graves was taken to Natchez Community Hospital, but Murphy said he seems to being doing well physically.

The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Natchez Fire Department, the Natchez Police Department and the State Fire Marshal’s office.

Godbold said the investigation is in the early stages, and authorities are looking at all possible causes.

“We’re still working on it. We are speaking to family members now and trying to find out where everything started,” he said. “There are different things that we are having to investigate right now from faulty extension cords, hot plates and many other things.”

Stewart said family members at the scene indicated that there were smoke detectors in the house, but because of the extensive damage to the house, no smoke detectors have been located.

Stewart did say there was no natural gas service to the house.

“The house was all electric,” he said.

Donna Cromeans from the State Fire Marshal’s office said the investigation is ongoing.

“We are in the preliminary stages of the investigation at this time,” she said. “We don’t have any information that we can release at this stage.”

Wednesday morning’s fire wasn’t the first such tragedy for Smith.

Her apartment at Susie B. West Apartments was destroyed by a fire in March 2008.

Stewart said that fire is still under investigation, and would not release further information about that incident.

Godbold said investigators are looking to see if the fires are related, but no connection has been identified at this point.