GARY | An argument over an Xbox 360 may have led to the deaths of a mother and daughter in an apartment fire early Wednesday.
Neighbors displaced by the fire told The Times a male acquaintance of victim Bernice King threw a Molotov cocktail at the door of the apartment at 5805 Kennedy Terrace in the Lakeshore Dunes complex in Gary's Miller Beach. They said his action was prompted by an earlier argument over an Xbox 360.
King, 33, and her 14-year-old daughter, Angel Harris, died in the blaze. King’s five other children jumped from the second-story apartment to safety, witnesses said.
At a 4 p.m. news conference Wednesday at the fire scene, Gary Fire Chief Theresa Everett said the investigation is in its beginning stages and no official information is available about the exact cause or location of the fire’s start.
However, she said, the Indiana state fire marshal has told Gary officials to treat the deadly blaze as a “set fire.”
“This is a genuine tragedy,” Everett said with the sounds of hammers and staple guns in the background as crews attached blue tarp to the roof of the gutted units in the two-story building. The smell of smoke filled the air.
Janice King, mother and grandmother of the fire victims, told those gathered at the news conference the family knows who set the fire.
“We can’t let these thugs run our city. We have to take our city back,” said King, a Gary resident. She also thanked the Gary police and firefighters who were on scene after the fire was reported at 12:35 a.m. Wednesday.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson consoled King, telling her, “We’ll handle the law enforcement and make sure the people who are responsible for this pay. You take care of your family.”
The mayor said the authorities won’t rest until the perpetrator is brought to justice.
“We are working feverishly to make sure that any person responsible for this will be found,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Gary police officers on the evening shift reported for duty at the fire scene for a roll call. It’s a custom started by Gary Police Chief Wade Ingram when he arrived in the city as police chief. Ingram was out of town, but Deputy Chief Larry McKinley read the officers’ names and dismissed them for duty.
Andrew Brown, owner of the Lakeshore Dunes apartments, and complex manager Stella Vanderhere had been on site since the fire was reported. They arranged for food to be brought in for the residents displaced by the fire and gathered them in the development’s community room.
“All day we’ve been readying vacant apartments that are satisfactory for the needs of the tenants to move into. We should complete that by the end of the day,” Brown said. “We hired some U-HAULs and brought in extra staff to help residents remove their belongings. We’ve also made arrangements with other services like the Red Cross.”
The building has 48 units, of which 40 were occupied at the time of the fire, Brown said. Twelve of the units were heavily damaged.
“We’re uncertain about the rest,” he said.
The lives of Bernice King and Angel Harris were celebrated as well as mourned as family, friends and neighbors gathered at the news conference.
King managed Med-A-Port patient transport service in Hobart. The company van she drove was still parked outside the burned-out apartment building.
Friends and relatives attached a piece of pink poster board to the van’s back window and wrote messages to King and Harris. Teddy bears, purple star balloons, flowers and statues of angels filled the van’s back bumper and the ground below it. At the Lakeshore Dunes entrance, a towing flat-bed truck from Caruthers Auto Sales & Towing of East Chicago waited to remove the van.
King's sister, Linda Singh, of Portage, called her sibling “a hard worker and a loving parent.”
Angel suffered from severe asthma and wouldn’t have been able to breath well to rescue herself as the heavy smoke filled the apartment, Singh said.
The other children survived the fire because their mother got them out, Singh said. Those children are 17, 15, 10, 7 and 5.
“Bernice got the other children out of the apartment, but she wouldn’t leave Angel,” Singh said. “She wouldn’t leave her baby.”
Times staff writer Lauri Harvey Keagle contributed to this report.