Originally created 08/03/97

Girls remembered a year after fire



EUREKA - Junree Morin hadn't returned to the site where two of his friends burned to death a year ago until Friday.

"It scares me," the 7-year-old said. "I don't like to think about it much."

A weathered For Sale sign hangs from an oak tree and remnants of cement blocks cover barren ground. A baby doll that belonged to either Latisha or Natosha Wynne is hidden beneath broken dishes, glass and children's clothing.

"Their step-daddy was drunk," Junree remembered. "He tried to put out the fire, but he couldn't. I wish he could've 'cause I miss them a lot. He burned his hair, but he's alive."

The early morning trailer fire that occurred on July 30 of last year took the lives of the two small children and left their mother and her common-law husband with nothing. Latisha Lee Dawn, 8, and Natosha Lee Ann Wynne, 4, were trapped in the fire that started around 3 a.m.

"Everyday we would play with my toys, ride our bikes or play basketball," said Junree, who lives only 50 feet from the deserted lot.

Aiken County Coroner Sue Townsend said faulty wiring was thought to be the cause of the fire. The Center and Eureka volunteer fire departments responded to the blaze at the corner of Lake Shore and McSwain drives, two miles north of Interstate 20 off South Carolina Highway 19, but the trailer was already engulfed with flames by the time fire crews arrived.

Stacey Coleman, who was then an arson investigator for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, says he may never forget that tragic summer morning.

"When I got there, the home was completely gutted," said Mr. Coleman, now the deputy coroner for the county."You never get used to seeing a child suffer, especially when you have kids of your own. It was a tough scene to work.

"One, you're trying to do your job, but then, when something like this happens, it's hard not to let emotions get in the way," Mr. Coleman said. "I mean, what can you say to the families? There's nothing you can say, really."

The sheriff's office determined the fire was accidental, but Mr. Coleman said a smoke detector may have prevented the deaths.

A similar incident that took the life of a 9-month-old infant occurred in February on the outskirts of Vaucluse. The blaze accounts for the only fire-related death in Aiken County this year.

Around the state, 56 fire-related deaths have occurred, 25 of which were started in mobile homes.

Fannie Bullard, with whom the couple stayed for a short time after the fire, said she was the first to notify Debbie Wagner, the girls' mother, at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, where she was patrolling the second floor for Sizemore Security Co.

"I said there ain't no easy way to tell you this, but the trailer's on fire and the kids are in it, and they can't get it out," she recalled.

Ms. Bullard said she hasn't seen the children's mother in a long while. "The last I heard, she'd moved somewhere in the Midwest," she said. "I treated those kids like they were mine, and I miss them awfully. I still place a wreath on the lot at Christmas and other holidays.

"They may be gone, but we haven't forgotten them."