House fire kills 2 children at Norfolk

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Sep 5, 2008
Rural Nebraska
from the

The house had started to collapse when firefighters arrived.

There was nothing they could do to even attempt to rescue the two children in a second-floor bedroom.

“It’s not the fire that gets them, it’s the smoke,” said Terry Zwiebel, Norfolk’s fire marshal. “The children did what is textbook for children (in thinking) if you can’t see the fire, it’s not going to hurt me. They went back into their room and that’s where we found them.”

Zwiebel and Fire Chief Shane Weidner described the fire conditions at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Firefighters had responded to the house fire at 302 E. Kaneb Road north of Norfolk at 1:41 a.m.

They could see the glow from the sky and knew they had a “significant” and “working” fire at the house owned by Myron Kooi, Weidner said.

Eight-year-old Devynne and 10-year-old Sierra Ellenberger died in the blaze. Their mother, Jolene Ellenberger; two of Ellenberger’s other children, 6-year-old Jasmine and 4-year-old Skylar; along with Kooi’s adult son, Jacob, all escaped from the burning house.

Jolene Ellenberger and Jacob Kooi were transported to Faith Regional Health Services for smoke inhalation and were released.

Myron Kooi was not home at the time of the fire.

Zwiebel said Ellenberger and her children had been staying with the Koois temporarily.

“Myron is a very Christian guy,” he said. “He’ll take people in who are down on their luck.”

Investigators at the Norfolk Fire Division and state fire marshal’s office determined the fire started when tree debris under the home’s composite deck was ignited by the disposal of a cigarette.

“Unfortunately the weather conditions at the time were on the windward side . . . which pushed the fire into the house,” Zwiebel said.

Investigators found fire-safe cigarettes were being used, but it’s not known if that kind of cigarette was the one that caused the fire.

“They’re called ‘fire safe’ but they still continue to burn until they get to a certain portion of that cigarette and then they go out,” Zwiebel said. “It’s not once you stop puffing on it, it goes out right away. There’s a delay.”

At the time of the fire there were no working smoking detectors and no residential fire sprinkler system in place.

Zwiebel didn’t want to speculate on if the outcome would’ve been different with those two items in working order in the house.

Zwiebel said Ellenberger attempted to use the phone inside the house to call for help but it didn’t work. She then went to a neighbor’s house who then called 911.
Autopsies were scheduled in Omaha Wednesday morning.

Since 1998, 10 people have died in fires in Norfolk.
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