Jan. 02--The call came in just before 8 a.m. on New Year's Day, but when the Marianna fire department arrived at 4472 Jackson St. two minutes later, the blaze was already in an advanced stage.
Marianna Fire Chief Nicky Lovett, reached by phone Thursday, said firefighters started with an offensive approach to fighting the fire, but the older, wood-frame structure allowed the intensity to escalate quickly, requiring a switch to defensive mode for those battling the blaze.
An investigator with the Marianna Police Department said that when he arrived on scene Wednesday morning, shortly after the fire department, the dwelling was fully engulfed in flames. Standing in the yard were nine people -- three adults and six children -- who made it out of the fire, but still inside the burning house were four adult women who would not survive.
Once the fire had been extinguished, investigators from the state fire marshal's office, medical examiner's office and local agencies entered the four-bedroom house to search for those who were reported missing.
Inside, they found the four bodies: two in separate bedrooms, one on a living room couch and one in the threshold of the front door.
"It's just tragic to lose four people in the community at a time when we're supposed to be celebrating the new year," Lovett said.
While local law enforcement officials reached for comment early Thursday would not release the victims' names until positive identification was received from the medical examiner's office in Panama City, relatives of those lost in the fire confirmed their identity as 68-year-old family matriarch Gertrude Pete, 98-year-old Ruth Elise Pete (Gertrude's mother-in-law), 85-year-old Sarah Johnson (Gertrude's mother), and 46-year-old Cynthia Pete (Gertrude's daughter).
Discussing Wednesday's fire casualties, Lovett took a somber tone.
"In my 20 years of being involved in this business, this is the worst I've seen in terms of fire casualties."
Marianna Fire-Rescue is still in the fact-gathering phase, but preliminary information, including the structure's collapsed roof and still-standing exterior walls, indicates the fire started somewhere in the hallway of the home, and grew from there.
What started the fire, Lovett said, was possibly an overloaded extension cord, but a final determination of the cause may still be a week away. Marianna officials are being assisted in the investigation by the state fire marshal's office.
"The young lady that got everyone out is the true hero," Lovett said of an as-yet-unidentified grandchild who was reportedly key to most people in the house getting out safely.
The extent of the Pete family's loss -- four members, from multiple generations, gone in a single house fire -- is difficult to imagine. But the level of that devastation may have been lessened by a resident's quick thinking -- and the alarm from a smoke detector.
"I do believe the smoke detectors helped save lives," the chief said of the Jackson Street fire.
Lovett urges all City of Marianna residents (renters or homeowners) who need detectors to call the fire department at 482-2414, take advantage of a city program and make arrangements for department representatives to come out and install smoke detectors in your home.
The four women are described as pillars of their community, with friends and relatives drawn to Gertrude Pete's home, two doors west of the historic Saint Luke Baptist Church.
"People would honk their horns and wave when they saw them sitting on their porch," Lovett recalled.
There are few immune to the sadness being felt across Jackson County in the wake of Wednesday's tragedy. An emotional toll has even been taken on some of the approximately 25 firefighters who were on the ground to help extinguish the deadly blaze.
"My firefighters were all shaken by it," Lovett said. "This was a large family -- everybody knows somebody in that family."