Local News

Owner: Onslow house where children died had smoke detectors

Posted February 29, 2012 4:21 p.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2012 1:44 p.m. EST

— The woman who owns an Onslow County house where three children died last week in a fire said Wednesday that the house had smoke detectors.

Authorities said an electrical short in the refrigerator sparked the Feb. 23 fire at 2124 Wilmington Highway, in the Verona community south of Jacksonville.

Tabitha Pittman, 12, and two younger brothers, Elijah, 9, and Gabriel, 7, were found dead in the living room, and authorities said all three died of smoke inhalation.

Four other children and their mother were injured in the fire.

"It was just unbelievable. It was unbelievable to a lot of people. It's just an awful situation," said Susan Cottle, who has rented the house to the Pittman family for about seven years.

Cottle met the family through friends after their previous home in Richlands burned in 2005, and she offered to have them stay in her parents' home. Her father had died, and her mother had moved to Jacksonville with her, she said.

"They were ecstatic. They loved it. It was big enough to accommodate their family, and we just felt blessed to be able to bless them in that situation," Cottle said Wednesday after visiting the family at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

Ten-year-old Hannah Pittman is in the burn unit in critical condition, with third-degree burns on her arms, face and back.

Her mother, Johnetta Pittman, remains sedated and on a ventilator in the hospital. She suffered smoke inhalation after trying repeatedly to enter the burning house to rescue her children.

Three other children were released from New Hanover Regional Hospital over the weekend, and the eighth child escaped unharmed. Their father, Sam Pittman, was at work when the fire started.

Glenn Taylor, assistant chief of the Southwest Volunteer Fire Department, said Tuesday that investigators have found no evidence of any working smoke detectors in the home. On Friday, the State Bureau of Investigation said its fire investigators found no evidence of smoke detectors either.

Cottle disputed that but declined to comment further.

"We're still under investigation, and I really would rather not even go there at this point," she said.

She said her focus is on helping the family again recover from a devastating fire.

"We just had to think, God got them through one, he will get them through again," she said. "Just keep praying. That’s what they need right now is prayers."