That night – Report gives new clues about fire

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt April 21, 2014
An Avondale Estates home was completely destroyed during an April 12 fire. Photo by: Dan Whisenhunt

An Avondale Estates home was completely destroyed during an April 12 fire. Photo by: Dan Whisenhunt

A report released by the city of Avondale Estates points to a possible cause of an April 12 fire on Lakeshore Drive that claimed the lives of Tami Willadsen 43, and her daughter, Jess, 10.

The fire also badly injured the Willadsens’ son, Jack, 5. Dave Willadsen, the father, received minor injuries.

The report filed by Avondale Estates police officers said one of the witnesses told them candles may have been left burning on the front porch of the home.

“I was approached by (the witness) who stated he had been in a back room of the residence with several others when the fire suddenly started from the front of the house and quickly spread to the rear,” the report says. “He and several others were able to pull the child from the residence through a broken window, but (the witness) was too shaken up to provide clearer details. (The witness) did state that some candles had possibly been left lit on the front porch.”

The DeKalb County Fire Department is investigating the cause and the investigation hasn’t concluded. A reporter first heard about the possibility of candles igniting the blaze a week ago, and asked DeKalb County Fire Capt. Eric Jackson about it.

On April 17, Jackson said, “Our investigators have heard that but have not made a determination on the cause of the fire as of yet. That information is one of a couple of versions that have been spoken of but again, nothing has been determined yet.”

A reporter reached out to friends of the family and provided them with a copy of the police report. This story will be updated if those messages are returned.

The report describes a chaotic scene. In addition to incinerating the Willadsens’ home, the fire also damaged two nearby homes.

At one point, a police officer threatened to arrest three men at the scene after the officer ordered the evacuation of nearby houses on Stratford Road.

“(House) Number 74 was unoccupied and shortly caught fire, while the house to the north did not catch fire, but suffered heat damage,” the officer wrote. “As I returned to crowd control, I heard several firefighters yell at three men who were attempting to walk to the rear of House 74, which was still on fire and had sparks coming from the electrical box. Despite being told to stop several times by the firefighters, the males continued. I ordered them to stop and go across the street for their safety, but they refused, stating that they lived on Stratford Road and had to get to their houses. I told them to either walk down the block or cut through another yard but they continued to refuse and wished to argue. I finally told them they could either leave as instructed or go to jail, at which point they left going south.”

Caring neighbors ran to the Willadsens’ aid. By the time the firefighters arrived at the scene, the house was fully involved making it impossible to attempt a rescue of Tami and Jess.

One witness told police he was with a group of friends on Stratford Road when they saw the fire coming from Lakeshore. The witness ran over to help. When this witness arrived, Dave and Jack were in the backyard. The neighbor helped to move them near the lake across the street, where the firefighters found them. They soon transported Jack to Grady Hospital, where his condition has continued to improve.

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  • jo

    The police do not need to be commenting on this incident as they do not have the necessary training and expertise. The fire investigators are the proper investigators to issue a report on this incident.

    • I feel I should point out that the report was released at my request. The police officers have to file the reports. Their comments were not spontaneous in nature. I hope that clears up any confusion.

  • dewayne

    Police reports are public information and available upon request. “I feel I should point out that the report was released at my request.” I FEEL it would have been more accurate to say “I requested a copy of the police report.” Just say’n…

    • I think both are accurate statements. Yes, I did request the report.

  • Concerned

    Dan, you are making a mess of this. Please stop. Your headline and lead sentence makes it sound like the city is releasing a final report of the cause of the fire. Are you just trying to trick folks into reading this? It’s not until we read the comments section that we learn that you are reporting on a very incomplete document filed by the police that night that you requested, not anything that was officially released or not anything released by the fire investigators.

    Reporting should never be about your feelings as dewayne has pointed out. Reporting is about the facts.

    “A police report filed the night of the fire and released upon a FOI request filed by includes witness statements that….”

    • I stand by my reporting, including its presentation. Headlines are limited in the information they can convey. We have a limited number of characters we can use. It’s not a trick or a lure. The headline is an attempt to capture some of the essence of the story in a way that’s accurate. This headline does both. At no time did I write or imply that the city is releasing or has released a final report. The article explicitly says, that the DeKalb County Fire Department’s investigation hasn’t concluded. I didn’t file an FOI. I obtained the report by visiting the police station and asking for it.

      I think you misunderstood me when I said “I feel I should point out.” I was providing clarification to a reader, and I feel strongly about engaging with readers and explaining the reporting behind stories like this. Nothing in this story is inaccurate. Nothing in this story is unfair. The reporting of this story is important because I feel there is a legitimate concern regarding public safety. I hope these records can shed light on how this tragedy occurred and how it can be prevented in the future.

      I feel for the family of this tragedy. Their pain and suffering is difficult to comprehend. At every turn I’ve tried to direct readers to places where they can contribute to help the family in their time of need. There are so many people doing so much for them, and I am proud to support their efforts.

      There seems to be a sentiment among some people in the community that I should stop following this story. I have yet to hear a convincing argument about why this story shouldn’t be reported. The community is in pain. I get that. But if there’s something going on that is endangering the public safety of our readers, then I would be doing them a disservice by ignoring it.

      I’m going to write a column about this later today because I think it merits a formal response from me. I appreciate your criticism, but respectfully and vehemently disagree. I’m going to continue writing about this and following it. That is my job.

  • wanting to know…

    Has there been an offical cause released yet?

    • No, nothing yet.

      • wanting to know…

        Why is it taking so long? Is this normal?

        • I don’t know the answers to those questions. I’ll ask.

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