Casualties, Fires

2 of woman’s 3 autistic children die in Ind. condo fire

Jill Disis The Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — Stephanie Eppert was just months away from getting the home her family wanted.

With Habitat for Humanity volunteers preparing to break ground on her home July 30, she would have been able to move out of her rented condominium on the city’s east side and into a home specially built for her three children who have autism.

But a deadly fire in her condo early Monday cut that dream short. Two of Eppert’s children, ages 8 and 10, were killed in the two-alarm fire that ravaged the unit.

Eppert was taken to Wishard Memorial Hospital in critical condition, as was a 19-year-old man in the home. Two others, another 19-year-old man and an 11-year-old boy, were taken to Methodist Hospital.

The two men and the boy are in stable condition — what Indianapolis Fire Department spokesman Jason Kistler described as “pretty good,” with expectations that they would survive.

Their identities have not been officially released. Eppert’s name was given to the Star by Sondra Hayes-Hartman, who owns the unit.

Fire officials still are investigating the cause of the fire. Forensics teams and arson investigators were at the scene.

James Radford, 22, lives across the street from the unit. He said the smoke looked like fog at first. But it wasn’t long before he realized the problem was serious.

“I saw black smoke and flames shooting out of the window,” Radford said.

“There was screaming.”

One woman, Radford said, called 911.

A next-door neighbor, 37-year-old Raymond Alvarez, said he tried to rescue the family.

“I was on my way to work and heard a kid screaming,” he said. “He was a friend of the family and was standing out front saying people were inside.”

Alvarez said the friend had been inside but escaped. “I think he burned his foot; he was hopping around,” Alvarez said. Alvarez saw two children in the front doorway, which was on fire.

“I couldn’t get close, so I went to my house to get a fire extinguisher,” he said. “I couldn’t get to it, so I filled two buckets of water.”

He poured the water onto the floor of the doorway. By then the two children had escaped.

Alvarez said he went to his garage and grabbed a ladder. He propped it next to his neighbor’s garage and climbed to the roof of the burning condo.

He said he went to a bedroom window over the garage and broke it. Flames shot toward him from inside. He was forced to climb down.

“It’s a helpless feeling trying to figure out ways to get inside,” he said. “I’m just really sad right now. Two children are no longer with us.”

The fire department arrived in about 10 minutes, Alvarez said, and rescued the mother through the rear of the home.

IFD spokesman Kistler said it took about 20 minutes to put out the fire, which caused about $200,000 in damage. Some of the surrounding units were damaged by smoke, but the fire was largely contained to the one unit.

Abri Hochstetler, a spokeswoman for Habitat for Humanity, said Eppert was excited to move into a home with all of the safety specializations her children would need. Eppert is in the process of completing about 450 hours of preparation with the organization, including taking financial management classes and learning how to invest in the home.

Eppert also was discussing a mortgage arrangement with the organization: interest-free payments the homeowner makes on their Habitat-built home.

“She did a very proactive job of reaching out to us to help find support and resources for her kids,” Hochstetler said. “That’s what’s important. She recognized that she needed some help and guidance, and she proactively sought that out for the benefit of her family.

“We’re extremely sad for her loss.”

Hayes-Hartman, the unit’s owner, said Eppert and her family lived in the unit for about three years. She said there were no major problems with the family, though one of the children ran away a few times, even breaking a window in the process.

Hayes-Hartman said she and her husband would do inspections on each of the units they owned every three months. The last time they checked on this unit, she said, was in April.

“I’m very upset. Two children did not make it out alive,” Hayes-Hartman said.

She said she will work with the tenants and the insurance company to assess the home.

Hochstetler said she couldn’t say what becomes of the Habitat home building project now that Eppert is in the hospital in critical condition.

“Our plans are to continue to work with her,” Hochstetler said.

“We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Contributing: Indianapolis Star reporter John Tuohy

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