Newark house that killed 6 trapped family members fueled by plastic flowers

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Sarah Wallace reports from Newark, where plastic flower decorations are being blamed for the rapid spread of a fatal fire. (WABC)

Investigators say plastic flowers and plants placed in front of a Newark home accelerated a fast-moving fire that killed six family members trapped inside.

Police add that there were no working smoke detectors in the house. The investigation continues into the cause of the blaze.

The flames broke out early Sunday morning at the home on South 15th Street in Newark and quickly spread to a neighboring structure, which was also destroyed.

Among the victims is 15-year-old Stephon Sydney and his mother, 43-year-old Noreen Johnson, who came from Georgia to visit family.

Authorities believe the fire was sparked by a discarded match or cigarette, and fueled by the artificial greenery.

"She liked to decorate her household, so whatever caught it went up, in the blink of an eye," said neighbor Jianna Diggs.

"These flowers are highly flammable once ignited and served as a conduit for an unbelievably fast fire that spread across the front of the house and up through the house," said Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray.

Investigators say six members of one family were sleeping in bedrooms on the second and third floors with no chance to escape.

"Units were here within two minutes of the alarm, and they were encountering a fully involved front of the two and a half story building, said Newark Fire Chief John Centanni.

The outgoing mayor says he may push for an ordinance that would restrict certain household decoration. "I think any good legislation that can help provide the quality of life for people, we should entertain," said Mayor Luis Quintana.

The only thing that's recognizable is the white fence outside the home, while everything else is dark, damaged or destroyed. The fast-moving fire swept through the wood frame of the three-story home, and the six people inside never had a chance to get out.

Cell phone video shows a wall of flames ripping through the single-family home around 4 a.m. Sunday and spread quickly. Neighbors stood outside, knowing there were people trapped inside but helpless to do anything.

The flames pushed neighbors and responders back and kept the family stuck. One neighbor said it was horrifying to hear the family's desperate screams for help.

"There was no way possible that we could help," witness Erica Simmons said. "And it's the saddest thing to know that somebody is burning up and there's nothing you can do about it."

Also killed were 58-year-old Salome Stewart, her 58-year-old husband Reginald Stewart, Salome's sister 47-year-old Natasha Kinsale and grandson 11-year-old Zion Forbes.

The family was well-known and loved in their community.

"They always helped a lot of people," one neighbor said. "Everybody knows them. We're going to miss them, the family, it's sad."

Firefighters say there were a lot of items inside the home that helped fuel the fire. The cause remains under investigation.

Sources say Stephon Sydney lost his father two years ago, and he was supposed to be in church Sunday morning with the rest of his family celebrating his father's life on Father's Day. His grandmother said she knew something was wrong when they didn't show up.

Cheryl Sydney, the teenager's aunt, was still wearing her white church dress and pearls as she stood across the street from the fire-ravaged house. She described how she admired both her nephew and his mother and listed their good qualities.

"Main thing is that she was a good person, a young, vibrant person," Cheryl Sydney said. "This is my nephew - young, 15-years-old, artistic, poetry, dancer - did not deserve this."

A small storefront church called Tree of Life Ministries, on the other side of the home where the six died, appeared undamaged. Neighbors gathered outside the home - many in their Sunday church clothes - shaking their heads at the loss of so many lives.

The Rev. Thomas Ellis lives in the neighborhood and stopped by to offer his support.

"For the city of Newark, this is a sad and tragic day," he said. "The community is hurting."

(Some information in this story is from the Associated Press.)

He and about 15 others held a prayer vigil Sunday evening.
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