A firefighter with the Pine Bluff Fire & Emergency Services Department looks through the rubble at a fire at Fifth Avenue and Poplar Street that claimed the lives of two people Friday. (Special to The Commercial/Mike Adam)
A massive house fire at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Poplar Street early Friday morning resulted in the death of two people, a woman and a child, and is still under investigation.
Jefferson County Coroner Chad Kelley tentatively identified the victims as Kassie Calvart, 30, and Devin Calvert, 3. Deputy Coroner Eric Belcher pronounced Kassie Calvert dead at 10:43 a.m. and Devin Calvert dead at 11:50 a.m.
Kelley said both bodies will be sent to the Arkansas State Medical Examiner’s Office at Little Rock to determine the cause and manner of death and to confirm the identifications.
Lt. Harold Clark said the bodies were found in the southeast corner of the two-story structure.
Chief Shauwn Howell said the fire was fully involved when the first firefighters arrived on the scene, and fire officials were trying to confirm how many people lived in the house.
“We understand there may have been multiple families living there but we’re not sure at this point,” Howell said Friday morning.
Clark said an off-duty firefighter saw smoke from the residence and called the fire in just after 7 a.m. and the blaze was under control in about an hour.
“It’s hard for us when we can’t save somebody and it’s really hard when it’s a child,” he said.
All westbound traffic on Fifth Avenue was diverted just west of Oak Street and Poplar Street north of Sixth Avenue was closed to traffic from just after 7 a.m. when the fire started until nearly 1 p.m., forcing drivers trying to go to work to seek alternate routes.
A neighbor, Willie Farris, said he looked out his back door when he heard his dogs barking Friday morning and saw fire coming out the back door of the house.
“The fire trucks started arriving and then the fire looked like it was out of control,” Farris said.
Farris said the two-story structure was “kind of like a boarding house, and at times, I have seen eight or nine people there.”
He said the house had been remodeled “a couple of years ago, and I’ve seen the owner but never knew him by name.”
Clark said Fire and Emergency Services Lt. Randy Compton, the assistant fire marshal, will work with police detectives in a joint investigation to determine the cause and origin of the fire.
“They will be interviewing the occupants who were there, as well as family, friends and bystanders and looking for leads,” Clark said.
Additionally, evidence such as charred wood will be collected and sent to the state crime laboratory for analysis to determine if accelerants were involved.
Clark said one of the first things the investigators will be looking for is the point of origin of the fire.
“When we pinpoint the origin, then we can start putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” Clark said. “”Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and we are going to do everything we can to solve this.”
Arkansas Red Cross regional communications officer Brigette Williams said the organization is providing assistance to a family who survived the fire, but she did not know how many people were affected. The family will be given a card they can use to purchase the food and clothing items that they need.
The Red Cross is also providing mental health support and funeral assistance to the families affected.
The organization does not accept clothing or food donations for specific disasters, but those interested in making a donation or volunteering their time can visit www.ArkansasRedCross.org for more information.
Williams said the Red Cross responds to an average of four to five fires a day in Arkansas.
“Obviously, it’s a heart-breaking situation when anyone dies, especially when children are involved,” Williams said. “I just want to remind everybody to be safe. We all do things every day that are dangerous, and it’s just been pure luck that we haven’t started a fire ourselves.
“It’s really easy to look at a fire from the outside and think, ‘I would never do that,’ but it’s really just luck as to when those conditions combine to start a fire. We all have to be vigilant about fire safety.”
Fires and fire deaths increase in the winter times and the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Williams said.
“Having working fire alarms is critical for waking people who are asleep,” Williams said. “Families should have an evacuation plan and know how to get out if a fire starts at night.”
Williams said Arkansas remains on the top-five list in the nation for fires and is number three on the Federal Emergency Management Administrations list of states with the highest number of fatal fires.
Staff Writer Amy Widner contributed to this report.