A 5-year-old boy was responsible for starting the fire that killed his 2-year-old female cousin in the family’s rental home in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, authorities say.
"This was not an accident," Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Thursday after visiting the remains of the home. "This is arson."
Ayanna Brooks died of smoke inhalation in one of the house’s upstairs bedrooms. Deputy Fire Chief Don Sabol said the fire started around 11:30 PM Sunday and spread to the houses on either side.
The child who started the fire with a lighter escaped along with two other children and a woman, thought to be the boy’s mother. According to officials, two sisters live in the house with their children. Ayanna’s mother, the boy’s aunt, was in Florida at the time of the fire.
Children under 10 cannot be charged with homicide, but the department of Children, Youth, and Families is evaluating the boy. He is believed to have a history of starting fires and gave investigators “sufficient information” to conclude that he was responsible for this one, Zappala said.
Court proceedings will determine if the child will be removed from his family.
According to Zappala and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko, landlord irresponsibility was partly to blame for the tragedy. Kevin Kamenski, owner of Steel City Realty, which manages the property, is an absentee landlord who may not have installed smoke or carbon monoxide detectors.
"I think all too often you run into homes that might not be safe," said Mayor Cherepko.
Sixty percent of McKeesport homes are owned by absentee landlords, the officials say.