RAYTOWN, Kan. -- Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent Tuesday setting up their equipment and gathering information and evidence to hopefully determine the cause of the weekend fire at a Raytown apartment building that has now claimed the lives of two people.
They're preserving contents of the building and interviewing first responders, firefighters who fought the blaze and residents. While they did go into the building, they said that was not their main focus today. The wind was a concern as they tried to preserve the scene.
"Yesterday we lost a little bit of the building because of the wind, so we’re very mindful of the fact that this is a dangerous situation," said John Ham, ATF Information Officer.
The ATF team is made up of fire scene and fire investigation experts, forensic chemists, structural engineers and electrical engineers, and they're expected to be here all week collecting information.
"Our fire investigators have to think about literally every step they take because in a building that’s sustained as much damage as this, if you step in the wrong spot, it can have some not-so-good consequences, and so our guys think about every step they’re going to take and then we move methodically," Ham said.
On Tuesday, 59-year-old Cherri Roberts, who was rushed to the hospital during the fire that killed her grandson, also died. Jeremiah Roberts was four-years-old.
The Somerset Village apartment complex, a three-story building located near 60th Street and Raytown Road went up in flames Sunday, Feb. 7. around 2 a.m.
Jeremiah's 18-month-old brother Jabin, was rescued from the fire, but suffered severe burns on 70 percent of his body. The 18-month-old is currently on life support, listed in critical condition.
Jeremiah's six-year-old brother Jacob escaped the fire thanks to a fire safety course he took at school.
Family members add that Jacob tried to get Jeremiah to follow him, but the four-year-old was too scared.
John Ham also commended other residents, who helped each other survive the fire.
"There was a college student that lived in this building and she was an absolute hero. Once she smelled the smoke, she realized that something wasn’t right, and then when it occurred her, when she realized that the building was on fire, instead of just grabbing her family and running out the front door, she went to every door in that apartment building and knocked," said Ham. "So without her doing that, we certainly could be having a completely different discussion about how many lives were lost."
While trying to rescue residents from the apartment complex, firefighters became trapped inside the burning building for a short time when their hose was burned in half. The fire cut off their exit and forced them to take the 18-month-old to the third floor where crews outside had to bring a ladder to a window to help them escape.
In less than 10 minutes from the time crews evacuated everyone, the roof supports began to break down, which then caused the roof to collapse in on the building. Some residents fled in their pajamas and left everything behind.Twenty-six people who lived in the building were left without a home following the fire that is being called one of the worst fires in the city's recent history. The Red Cross is working to find places for the displaced residents to stay.
"One of the things that I’ve heard a lot today is well, 'the ATF is taking over this fire, it must be arson,'" said Ham. "That couldn’t be further from the truth. Right now, we have no idea what started this fire. But we bring in the people with the greatest skill set in the U.S. to figure these things out and so that’s what we’re doing here."
Raytown Deputy Fire Chief Mike Hunley said he wanted to bring in outside help because he felt the Raytown Fire Protection district did not have enough money or resources to safely handle the investigation.
“Frankly, we do investigations, but most of our investigations are accidental fires that are single family residences that don`t involve injuries or fatalities. They just are a lot smaller in scale,” he explained.
As the ATF continues its investigation, they say the family that lost two loved ones is never far from their minds.
"Our hearts and prayers are with them, and that’s something that weighs heavy on all of us as we investigate what caused this. We certainly work to find the cause of every fire we’re asked to investigate. But when you’ve had a family that’s lost as much as that family has in the last 72 hours, that’s first thing on our mind, is to be able to find out what caused this and hopefully offer them some closure."