Investigations begin into cause of fatal West Allis fire

2 teen boys died in blaze; firefighters tell of intensity, crumbling ceiling

Classmates gather near a memorial outside the home where two boys were killed early Sunday morning in a West Allis house fire.

Classmates gather near a memorial outside the home where two boys were killed early Sunday morning in a West Allis house fire. Photo By Rick Wood

March 18, 2013

West Allis - Snow fell on a West Allis duplex Monday, chilling what had been an inferno just a day before.

The state Division of Criminal Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating a fire early Sunday that killed two teenage boys.

The agencies together with the West Allis police and fire departments have not determined the cause of the fire - described by many firefighters as the most intense residential blaze they have battled.

Snowflakes collected inside candles depicting religious icons and wax hardened. Tapers had flickered Sunday night in memory of the two 14-year-old victims and stood cold Monday in makeshift memorials outside the duplex in the 1600 block of S. 57th St.

It took firefighters less than four minutes to respond after the fire was reported at about 3:30 a.m.

"The flames were on the entire second floor and were spreading to the attic. Firefighters knew through dispatch reports there were children in the attic," said West Allis Fire Lt. Jay Scharfenberg.

Firefighters from West Allis, Greenfield, Wauwatosa and Brookfield went through the second floor, where the fire is believed to have started, to try to reach the attic, he said.

"It is very difficult in a situation like this. It's emotional and very traumatic for the firefighters. There was too much fire. The ceiling collapsed on them," Scharfenberg said.

"They kept hitting the fire, pushed it back, but then it came roaring back at them," he said.

Scharfenberg said Monday that state regulations mandate that the state fire marshal, under the Division of Criminal Investigation, be notified in certain circumstances, such as serious or fatal injuries, and that the division typically works with the ATF.

The state and federal agencies' involvement with the investigation is not indicative of a cause, he said.

West Allis Assistant Fire Chief Martin King said two residents, a man and a woman, were in the lower duplex unit. They heard a smoke alarm and smelled smoke.

The man went upstairs and kicked in the door. Two of the children, 13-year-old Joel Gonzales and his 4-year-old brother Kendall, were heading out, and the man helped them, King said.

In the meantime, the woman went to the basement to get a fire extinguisher, but the blaze was too strong for her to use it, King said.

King said the fire was too intense for the couple to go back inside, but the 13-year-old did re-enter and tried to save his 14-year-old brother, Michael. He was not successful.

Joel Gonzales and Kendall were taken to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa to be treated for smoke inhalation and are expected to recover. Michael Gonzales and his friend, Isaiha Kobow, 14, identified during a vigil Sunday night, died in the blaze. The Milwaukee County medical examiner's office will determine the positive identification of victims as well as cause and manner of death, which is still under investigation, according to a West Allis police news release.

Pavielle Gonzales, a cousin of the three brothers, told the Journal Sentinel on Sunday that the boys had been celebrating Joel Gonzales' 13th birthday, which had occurred a few days earlier, at their mother's duplex residence.

Neither she nor any other adult was present in the upstairs portion of the duplex when the fire broke out, West Allis Acting Police Chief Charles Padgett said Monday.

Kobow was a student at West Milwaukee Intermediate School, and district counselors converged on the building at 7 a.m. Monday to offer students support, said Principal Jeffrey Taylor.

"He was a great kid and one of us. He played basketball and was one of those guys. He will be missed," Taylor said.

Taylor said parents who speak to their children about these types of situations should let the children get their feelings out.

"Kids are resilient, but you have to give them a forum," he said.

Michael Gonzales was a student in the Milwaukee Public Schools district, which issued a statement Monday.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our students. Today, we made students at the school aware of the availability of crisis team counselors and some students did make use of those services. The thoughts of the MPS family are with the student's family and friends," spokesman Tony Tagliavia wrote in an email.

The first floor of the duplex had a working smoke detector. A smoke detector was found on the second floor, however it was damaged by the fire and it is unknown if it was working at the time of the fire. These types of fires serve as a reminder for everyone to make sure a working smoke detector is present on every level of a house, King said.

"Investigators are considering all aspects of the circumstances surrounding this incident," Padgett wrote in an email.

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