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District attorney: Another child may have ignited fatal McKeesport fire

| Thursday, March 27, 2014, 2:32 p.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., right, Deputy District Attorney David Spurgeon, left, and other law enforcement from the county and McKeesport visited the scene of a deadly house fire on Soles Street on Thursday, March 27, 2014. Zappala said a boy who lived in the home is believed to have intentionally set the fire with a lighter late Sunday night.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., right, and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said absentee landlords are a problem for the city while visiting the scene of a deadly house fire on Soles Street. Ayanna Brooks, 2, died in the fire which started late Sunday night.

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

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. visited what remains of the house at 1726 Soles St. 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. The district attorney 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 — will not be subject to a charge of homicide because he is less than 10, but said the youth could be charged with arson. He said the boy is being evaluated by Allegheny County's office of Children, Youth and Families.

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

There has been indication the boy may have set other fires, Zappala added.

Five people — 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 though one of the children reportedly suffered head burns. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries.

The district attorney used the visit as an opportunity to announce that his office was looking to offer support to McKeesport so the city can better enforce its landlord and tenant ordinance.

Though evidence from the fire was scant because of the intensity of the blaze, Zappala said witnesses told investigators the scene was “eerily silent,” indicating there was possibly an absence of working smoke, fire 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.

So far there is no evidence the company that owned the burned structure — Steel City Realty Investments Inc. of Chicora — lacked alarms, but Mayor Michael Cherepko said unsafe rental properties have been a concern of his since taking office.

“All too often you run into households that may not be safe,” said Cherepko. The mayor said the city does have an ordinance that requires landlords get occupancy permits for properties when renting them, a process that includes a safety inspection. But he said the city lacks the ability to follow up on that process when buildings are rented to new tenants.

“It's about manpower,” Cherepko said.

The mayor said it could take a few weeks to more than a month to tear down what remains of the structure.

Eric Slagle is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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