Cause of fatal Fort Valley fire determined

FORT VALLEY — A faulty gas log heater caused a Fort Valley fire Monday thatclaimed 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 smokeinhalation, were found inside her home on Perry Railroad Street off SpruceSt., authorities said.

Fire Commissioner John Oxendine said the gas heater had broken and itappears that a home repair was made instead of a professional being calledin.

Fort Valley Fire Chief Otis Daniel said the problem was traced to a faultyvalve. The gas log heater was located in the living room.

Also, the home did not have a working smoke detector in place, Oxendinesaid.

"It's a terrible tragedy to lose this grandmother and this child," Oxendinesaid.

"If there is a positive thing that can come out this tragedy," Oxendinesaid, it would be education about the need to call in professionals withanything related to natural gas and to ensure that each home has a smokedetector.

"Whenever there is a problem with anything related to gas, the gas shouldalways be shut off immediately and not be used until a professional comes inand makes appropriate repairs," Oxendine said.

Although Prater was apparently on a modest income, a professional repairmay have saved her and her grandchild from death, Oxendine said.

The same holds true had there been a working smoke detector, the firecommissioner said. Oxendine noted that the child's body was found in the hallway, probablytrying to get out, and that the grandmother was found in the floor by herbed. Both were still in their pajamas, which indicates that they probablyhad been sleeping, he said.

"Smoke will wake you up but by the time smoke wakes you up, it's too lateto get you out," Oxendine said. "Instantly, smoke fills your lungs and youcollapse and you really don't have that early warning.

"It probably would have made all the difference," Oxendine said, had therebeen a working smoke detector in place.

Prater previously had a working smoke detector in place but a family membertold Daniel that she may have taken it down when it beeped because of a lowbattery and had not changed the battery and put it back up again, Danielsaid.

Because it's so important for every home to have a smoke detector, Oxendinesaid anyone without one may call 1-800-656-2298 and his office will ensurethat a smoke detector is provided free of charge.