FORT VALLEY — A faulty gas log heater caused a Fort Valley fire Monday that claimed the life of a 66-year-old grandmother and her 7-year-old grandson, the state's fire commissioner said today.
The bodies of Lucille Prater and Khalid McKenzie, who died from smoke inhalation, were found inside her home on Perry Railroad Street off Spruce St., authorities said.
Fire Commissioner John Oxendine said the gas heater had broken and it appears that a home repair was made instead of a professional being called in.
Fort Valley Fire Chief Otis Daniel said the problem was traced to a faulty valve. The gas log heater was located in the living room.
Also, the home did not have a working smoke detector in place, Oxendine said.
"It's a terrible tragedy to lose this grandmother and this child," Oxendine said.
"If there is a positive thing that can come out this tragedy," Oxendine said, it would be education about the need to call in professionals with anything related to natural gas and to ensure that each home has a smoke detector.
"Whenever there is a problem with anything related to gas, the gas should always be shut off immediately and not be used until a professional comes in and makes appropriate repairs," Oxendine said.
Although Prater was apparently on a modest income, a professional repair may have saved her and her grandchild from death, Oxendine said.
The same holds true had there been a working smoke detector, the fire commissioner said. Oxendine noted that the child's body was found in the hallway, probably trying to get out, and that the grandmother was found in the floor by her bed. Both were still in their pajamas, which indicates that they probably had been sleeping, he said.
"Smoke will wake you up but by the time smoke wakes you up, it's too late to get you out," Oxendine said. "Instantly, smoke fills your lungs and you collapse and you really don't have that early warning.
"It probably would have made all the difference," Oxendine said, had there been a working smoke detector in place.
Prater previously had a working smoke detector in place but a family member told Daniel that she may have taken it down when it beeped because of a low battery and had not changed the battery and put it back up again, Daniel said.
Because it's so important for every home to have a smoke detector, Oxendine said anyone without one may call 1-800-656-2298 and his office will ensure that a smoke detector is provided free of charge.