DA believes 5-year-old may have ignited fatal McKeesport house fire

by: Eric Slagle, TribLIVE Updated:

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McKEESPORT, Pa. —

Authorities believe a house fire that killed a 2-year-old girl in McKeesport was set by a 5-year-old boy who lived in the home.

(This article was written by Eric Slagle, a staff writer for Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE.)

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. visited what remained of the house at 1726 Soles St. on Thursday to discuss the investigation into the fire, which started late Sunday night and claimed the life of Ayanna Brooks.

“This was not an accident,” Zappala said. He said investigators interviewed the child suspected of starting the fire and believe he was playing with a lighter on a couch on the first floor of the home.

Zappala said the boy, who is the victim's cousin, is too young to be charged with homicide but could be charged with arson. He said the boy is being evaluated by the county's Office of Children, Youth and Families.

CYF has until Monday to determine what legal course to take for the child. If the agency does not file a petition, Zappala said his office will pursue legal action against the boy.

Authorities have reason to believe the boy may have set other fires, Zappala said.

One adult and four children lived in the rental property. All but the victim, whose mother was in Florida, made it out of the home; one child was burned on the head. Two firefighters were injured.

Zappala said his office could offer support to McKeesport so the city can better enforce its landlord and tenant ordinance.

Though the intense fire left scant evidence, Zappala said witnesses told investigators the scene was “eerily silent,” indicating an absence of working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in the home.

“We're going to work together with the city,” said Zappala, noting that 60 percent of housing is owned by absentee landlords.

There is no evidence the company that owned the burned structure, Steel City Realty Investments Inc. of Chicora, did not install alarms. But Mayor Michael Cherepko said unsafe rental properties are a concern.

“All too often you run into households that may not be safe,” said Cherepko.

The city has an ordinance requiring landlords to get occupancy permits for properties when renting them, a process that includes a safety inspection. But Cherepko said the city lacks the ability to follow up when buildings are rented to new tenants.

“It's about manpower,” he said.

(Eric Slagle is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or eslagle@tribweb.com.)

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