MILWAUKEE — Fire swept through an overcrowded two-story house in a poor neighborhood Wednesday, killing 10 children and two adults who were about to be evicted for failing to pay rent, officials said.
Eleven of the victims were found on the second floor, trapped there when flames destroyed the main staircase, fire officials said. Three adults who escaped the fire also lived in the home, located on Milwaukee's North Side.
Neighbors rushed to the house after discovering the fire but were forced back by flames and said they could only listen to the screams of the children, who ranged in age from 11 months to 8 years.
The fire, reported at 4:42 a.m., started on the first floor of the house, apparently in the kitchen, said James Rechlitz, a fire battalion chief. Investigators did not know the cause immediately, but tentatively ruled out arson.
The owner of the building, Emmett Echols, said the residents were about to be evicted because they were two months behind on their rent.
The rental agreement, Echols said, provided that four people were to live in the house. He said he learned there was more than that number after a workman doing renovations at the single-family, wood-and-brick home reported seeing several families inside.
Rosella Ramthun, the mother of one survivor, Jill Schreck, said her daughter was due in court Wednesday to fight the eviction notice, but the residents nonetheless were preparing to leave.
"They had everything packed. They were going to move," said Ramthun, who lives down the street from the house.
A building inspection on Sept. 8 found 21 code violations in the house, including several defective electrical fixtures. But Robert Peterson, supervisor of building code enforcement for the city, said he doubted that the fire was related to the violations.