Monday, June 16
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — It was pride of ownership that led a New Jersey family to decorate the front of their home with bright plastic flowers, and it was those same decorations that acted as a fatal accelerant in a fast moving blaze that killed everyone inside, prosecutors said Monday.
Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray said Sunday's fire in Newark did not appear to be suspicious, but investigators still haven't pinpointed the origin of an "unidentified heat source" in front of the house that set fire to the decorations and touched off a blaze that killed six members of one family.
"It appears this family cared about the neighborhood and they cared about the house, the house was decorated with plastic flowers both along the porch and up some of the structures on the front of the house," Murray said, adding that the highly flammable flowers "served as a conduit for an almost unbelievably fast fire that spread across the front of the house and up through the house."
The home didn't appear to have working smoke detectors, Murray added. She appealed to the public to call the authorities with any information as to what may have started the fire.
The deceased had been found in their pajamas on the upper floors of the single family home in or near bedrooms, Murray said. The home was reduced to a charred frame, with stray plastic blossoms and strands of plastic vines twisted around fire-damaged wreckage.
Homeowners Salome Stewart and her husband, Reginald Stewart, both 58, were killed in the blaze, along with one of Salome's daughters who lived in the house, Natasha Kinsale, according to the prosecutor's office.
The family's pastor said Natasha had just turned 35 in March.
Three other family members were killed, including another of Salome's daughters, 43-year-old Noreen "Michelle" Johnson, and her 15-year-old son, Stephon Sydney, who were visiting from Crawford, Georgia. Another grandson, 11-year-old Zion Forbes, who lived in East Orange, had been staying with his grandmother for the night to see the visiting relatives, according to the prosecutor.
Relatives said Stephon had come with his mother to Newark over the weekend to attend a Father's Day service in honor of his deceased father, who had been struck by an SUV while riding his bicycle in Newark two years ago. Stephon had gotten a haircut and was preparing to attend the Sunday service with his paternal grandmother, Iris Sydney, before traveling on Wednesday with his maternal grandmother to Trinidad & Tobago to see family, according to Iris Sydney.
Rev. James Johnson, who runs the Tree of Life Ministries church next door to the Stewart's home, described Salome and her daughter Natasha as regular churchgoers who were a supportive presence in his congregation.
"They will be terribly missed," he said.
Natasha, who Johnson described as having some challenges related to autism, had greeted him from her front steps the day he opened the church three years ago, informing him she would be volunteering there as an usher every Sunday.
Johnson said Natasha had excellent computer skills and a technically oriented mind, but lacked the social skills to leave the orbit of her mother's loving care. Johnson said Salome was extremely generous with his small congregation, covering the electric bill every month out of her pocket, and buying bible books for children.
Neighbors said Salome, who had once worked as a home health aide, had started several small stores in Trinidad & Tobago, where she had family ties.
After her husband was left unable to work after suffering an injury working as a baggage handler at Newark Liberty International Airport, neighbor Wanita Joffer said Salome ramped up her businesses in the Caribbean, scouring New Jersey flea markets and wholesale stores for things to sell. She took care of her family and community in both places, Joffer added.
"She always gave the school books and supplies, and gave the children in the neighborhood toys," Joffer said, gesturing to a small plastic car her daughter was pushing around on their porch that was a gift from Salome. "She was a generous woman."