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Firefighters Miss Victim Hiding in Bathtub

Firefighters Miss Victim Hiding in Bathtub

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch via YellowBrix

April 07, 2010

NORTHWOODS — By the time Quincy Harris learned there had been a fire early Tuesday at his godmother’s house, the firefighters were long gone.

Left behind, though, was Harris’ godmother, Gloria Banks, 80. Her body later was found in a bathtub where she may have sought refuge from the flames.

Firefighters responded to the fire at 7115 Groveland Drive about 3 a.m. and searched for victims but found no one before departing about 6 a.m. Hours later, after Harris asked Northwoods police and Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District officials if they knew if Banks had been taken to a hospital, firefighters returned to the scene and found the body.

“I had to round them up and tell them,” said Harris, 36, of Dellwood. “That’s unbelievable that they couldn’t find the body. Who’s to say she wasn’t living still? … I’m going to get some answers. You miss a body? How do you miss a body?”

Northeast Deputy Chief Bilal Olushola, the incident commander at the fire, could not be reached for comment. Northeast Deputy Chief Kevin McPike, who was also at the scene, said he could not comment.

Northeast Capt. Phil Boling, one of the firefighters who went into the house, said the crew conducted two searches before leaving. Boling said the home was difficult to search because it was full of debris.Banks’ godson and a neighbor confirmed that the house was jammed with clothing and other items. They referred to Banks, a retired St. Louis Public Schools teacher, as a “pack rat.”

Boling added that by the time firefighters arrived, there was significant structural damage, including a hole in the floor that trapped a Jennings firefighter by the leg. He also said firefighters were never able to confirm from neighbors whether anyone was in the house.

Northwoods Alderwoman Marvalda Jones lives on Banks’ street and took dinner to her several hours before the fire. Jones said some initially thought an ambulance at the scene had left with Banks. Neighbors later learned, however, that the ambulance had transported a firefighter. So just before the firetrucks left, Jones said she told a Northeast firefighter that she feared Banks might still be inside. Jones said she didn’t press it because she thought Banks might be with her godson — until she saw Harris show up to try to find her.

“They should have looked harder,” Jones said.

Harris said he raced to the house about 8:15 a.m. after he saw a text message about the fire that a friend had sent earlier. He said he arrived to find the front door wide open.

He drove to the Police Department, then to the fire station. There, Northeast Deputy Chief Quinten Randolph said he would have the house searched again.

Shortly after 10 a.m., Randolph found the body in the bathtub beneath the collapsed bathroom ceiling, Randolph said.

Northwoods police alerted the St. Louis County Bomb and Arson team to the fire about 11 a.m., St. Louis County Lt. Gary Berra said. “None of us think (Northeast) did anything wrong with determining the point of origin,” Berra said. “They just missed the person. That’s the oops here.”

Firefighters said the blaze is believed to have started in a faulty attic fan. Harris said he last saw Banks on Monday, when he brought her butter pecan ice cream. “This hasn’t really hit me yet,” he said. “I can’t believe this.”

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