CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Alisha Carter-Camp had a new job, a wedding to plan and a 26th birthday to celebrate with a family cookout and toasts to the birthday girl in a yard full of children. By the end of the night, she was among eight dead, including six children, in one of this West Virginia city's deadliest house fires in decades.
The blaze tore through the two-story home while the family slept early Saturday, hours after the last guest had left Carter-Camp's party, authorities said. The dead children ranged from 18 months to 8. A seventh child, a 7-year-old boy, was hospitalized on life support.
The cause was under investigation, although arson wasn't suspected, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said. The fire started about 3:30 a.m. on the first floor. Jones said the home had just one working smoke detector; the city requires several. A building inspection that had been scheduled for last month didn't happen because only children were home at the time.
A children's picnic table, chairs and an umbrella were overturned in the yard of the home, roped off by police tape on a corner in a neighborhood tightly packed with small houses in north Charleston. Flames and smoke blackened the front of the house Two huge front windows were shattered, and what appeared to be an opening for an upstairs air conditioner was stuffed shut with clothes.
Alisha Carter-Camp, who would have been 26 Saturday, was among those killed, Jones said. She had been working as a hotel clerk for six months and told neighbors she planned to get married in June and move to Pittsburgh.
Four of the victims were 3 years old: Jeremiah Camp, Elijah Scott and two children who were only identified by their first names. Also killed were Keahna Camp, 8, Emanuel Jones, 18 months, and an adult, Alex Seal.
Bryan Timothy Camp, 7, was hospitalized in critical condition. One adult survivor, Latasha Jones Isabell, went to the hospital but it wasn't clear if she was treated. Authorities said all the victims were related, but they weren't sure how and didn't know how many lived full-time in the home.
"We have reason to believe that a lot of the people stayed in the house more than one night and maybe on a weekly basis," Jones said. "These people may have had residences in other places, but a lot of people lived in this house."
Carter-Camp and her two children were staying with her sister at the home, said Roxie Means, who lives down the street.
The party started Friday afternoon with a cookout and toasts of wine.
"They were nice people drinking a glass of wine," Roxie Means said. "They weren't drunk. They weren't overdoing anything."
Roxie's daughter, 14-year-old Cassie Means, said she noticed lit candles inside the home when she attended the party Friday night.
Roxie Means said Isabell, 24, was smoking a cigarette outside, noticed the fire and came running to Means' home in the middle of the night and started "beating down the door."
The home was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. When they went inside, they immediately came across five victims and "started realizing there were a lot of people in this house, a lot of children."
Jones said he was devastated by the news of the fire – the deadliest in the state capital since seven firefighters perished while battling a fire at a Woolworth department store in 1949.
"I was with my children and I just grabbed them and hugged them, because I have a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old," he said. "I walked up there and caught a glimpse of some fatalities and it's something that's hard to grasp. The fact that there are (six) dead children, it's unimaginable."
Rusty Eaton, general manager at the Holiday Inn Express Charleston Civic Center, said Carter-Camp was one of his employees. Eaton said he was notified of her death by her mother Saturday morning.
"Everybody's taking it pretty tough, including myself," Eaton said. "It's a tough thing. It's something you hope you never have to deal with."
He said Carter-Camp had worked at the hotel's front desk for about six months and also helped audit financial paperwork at night. He said that she felt at ease speaking with anyone and that "you didn't have to teach (her) personality."
"She had one of those infectious smiles, never met a stranger. She had personality to spare," Eaton said. "She was great with our customers, great with her co-workers. Certainly, she'll be sorely missed by us."
By midmorning, police had pulled the bodies out. On Saturday afternoon, police searched Carter-Camp's vehicle still parked outside.
"She worked seven days a week, had her kids here," Roxie Means said. "I love the kids. That's really what hurts us."
Jones said the home had one working smoke detector on the bottom floor, but it was on a counter and wasn't properly mounted to a ceiling. Another was found in a basement area but didn't work. The city requires smoke detectors in basements, one in every bedroom and in hallways.
A city building inspector had made arrangements with the owner, Deloris Shamblen, to inspect the home on Feb. 28. Carter-Camp had signed a permission slip for an inspection of the property, but when the inspector arrived, a child answered the door and asked the inspector to come back when an adult was there, Jones said.
"Had we seen the fact that they did not have the proper number of smoke detectors, we might have saved a lot of lives," Jones said.
A telephone message left with Shamblen wasn't immediately returned Saturday.
Roxie and Cassie Means stood outside the burnt-out house and remembered the kids playing in front of it just hours earlier. Cassie Means said she had made the kids a promise; they wanted to know if she would be back on Saturday.
"`Cassie, are you coming over to play with us tomorrow?' I said, `yeah.'" she recalled.
The child continued, "`You promise me you'll be here tomorrow?'" Cassie Means recalled. "I said, `I promise you I'll be here when you wake up to play with you. I'll be here right when you wake up."
Associated Press Writer Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Va., contributed to this report