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House fire kills Penn Hills girl

| Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The body of a teenage girl who failed to go to school on Tuesday was found in her charred Penn Hills home.

Fire and homicide investigators combed through the house on Azalea Drive where Teesa Williams, a sophomore at Penn Hills High School, lived with her mother and four brothers. The boys spent the night elsewhere with other family members, and her mother was at work when the fire was reported, Allegheny County Police Assistant Superintendent James Morton said.

"She stayed home, but no one seems to know why at this point," he said.

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office, which is scheduled to conduct an autopsy, said Williams was 17.

Sonja Sandidge, 48, said she saw thick smoke billowing from an upstairs window of the home just before 10 a.m. The family's white minivan wasn't there, leaving Sandidge to suspect the family wasn't home but its pit bull, Waka, might be trapped inside.

"It was just smoking. And I knew something was wrong because it wasn't coming from the chimney," she said.

Sandidge and other neighbors called 911. Firefighters entered the home and found Williams in a first-floor bedroom.

Williams was placed in an ambulance, where EMTs tried to resuscitate her before going to the hospital. Police could not say whether Williams died in the hospital or en route.

County police and homicide detectives and investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were at the scene. Morton said homicide detectives routinely are brought to scenes of deaths. He deferred comment about a cause of death pending the results of the autopsy.

Residents of the tree-lined neighborhood emerged from their homes, consoling and hugging each other on streets clogged with police cars and fire investigation vehicles. Some pressed cell phones to their ears to notify family and friends.

Alexis Ross, 14, who lives across the street, described Williams as a friendly girl who had an affinity for animals and was giddy recently because she had a new boyfriend. She recalled sleepovers at Williams' home years ago, and talking with her on a front porch for hours about everything from boys and school to music.

"She was a nice girl. People liked her," Alexis said. "It was rare for her to miss school. Nobody knew she was even home."

Morton said the fire originated in the kitchen on the first floor and spread upstairs. The cause was not known.

In a statement, Penn Hills School District Superintendent Thomas K. Washington said Williams was a 10th-grader. He offered his condolences and called her death a tragedy. Counseling services will be available for students at both the high school and Linton Middle School. Neighbors said Williams attended Linton before going to the high school.

"It's just totally unbelievable," said Twanda Ross, Alexis' mother. "We thought she'd be OK. But now ... it's hard to believe she's gone."

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