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Academy Crossing residents struggle to cope


Tim Pratt



Kashonda Elliott was awake Thursday at about 4:30 a.m. when she heard an eerie noise. It sounded like a smoke detector going off in the building across from hers in the Academy Crossing apartment complex, she says. 


Building E is where fire tore through a second-floor apartment at about 4:30 a.m. Monday, just 72 hours before Elliott says she heard the alarm Thursday morning. The blaze killed nine people in Apartment E7, including Elliott''s cousin, Castella Maria Bell, and Bell''s three children.  


Elliott was still awake at 4:30 a.m. Thursday because she was too distraught to sleep. She spent the time checking Facebook pages for Bell and the other victims of the blaze, then she says she heard what she believes was a smoke detector sounding off in Building E.  


"I could hear the smoke alarm going off in that building," Elliott said Thursday while staring up at Building E. "It was the same time as the fire the other morning. It kind of spooked me." 


"If (the smoke detector) would have went off that morning, nine innocent people wouldn''t have died," she added. 


Starkville Fire Department Chief Rodger Mann said it is unclear if the smoke detector in Apartment E7 was working the morning of the blaze. At least "two or three" smoke detectors in the eight-unit building were going off when firefighters arrived at the scene Monday morning, but Mann said he was unsure which apartments'' detectors were working.  


Fire officials are still investigating the cause of the blaze, Mann said Saturday afternoon.  


Residents of Academy Crossing are like a family, Elliott said. The complex features six two-story buildings, each with eight units, and everybody knows everybody, Elliott said.  


Whenever someone has a party or a card game or a cookout, everybody is invited, Elliott said. And, often, friends and neighbors talk outside until the wee hours of the morning.  


"That''s why it hurts so bad over here," Elliott said, her eyes filling with tears. "Everybody over here loves each other. It''s like one big family over here. There''s people out here who still can''t sleep because of this." 


"I''m one of them," chimed in Tierra Ware, a friend of the three women and six children who died in the blaze. "I can''t sleep. I can''t eat. I can''t do anything." 


People were still dropping off stuffed animals and other items late last week at a memorial set up at the bottom of the staircase leading to the second floor of Building E. Fire investigators also were at the scene.  


Most of the windows in the building were boarded up, while the shutters and walls outside each of the four second-floor apartments were blackened by smoke.  


India Williams, 25, lived in Apartment E7 with her children, Jacorian Vasser, 6, Richard Vasser Jr., 5, and Kamorian Williams, 2. According to friends, Williams was letting Bell, 18, and her three children, Ta''Nayia Bell, 4, Jayvion Bell, 3, and Sumaya Bell, 6 months, stay with her at Academy Crossing because they had fallen on hard times. The ninth victim, 20-year-old Lakesha Gillespie, was a close friend who lived at the apartment. 


Elliot was awoken by the fire Monday morning and recalls opening her front door to see flames growing in her cousin''s apartment, approximately 50 feet away. She believes the fire could have been intentionally set, but Chief Mann said no foul play is suspected.  


Residents of the apartment complex just want answers.  


"There''s so many stories going around and so many rumors, you don''t know what to believe," Ware said.  


Mann this week has emphasized that the investigation into a fatal fire is lengthy, but says he is doing everything he can. 


"We just want to make sure that when we identify the cause, we''ve identified the right cause," Mann said.  


Charlie McCarter is another resident of Academy Crossing who knew Williams and the others in Apartment E7. 


"It''s still a shock to everybody who was here," McCarter said. "It hasn''t really sunken in yet. A lot of people don''t believe it." 


That was the case with Elliott. 


"I still, to this day, standing here looking up at it, can''t believe it''s true," Elliott said. 


"It rained so hard the other day," Ware added. "It felt like everybody was crying." 


Visitation for Bell and her children is scheduled for 2-6 p.m. today at West Memorial Funeral Home, 103 Jefferson St., Starkville. Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday at Springhill Missionary Baptist Church. Burial will follow at Rest Haven Cemetery. 


Visitation for Gillespie is scheduled for 1-6 p.m. Monday at West Memorial Funeral Home. Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday at Pine Grove Missionary Baptist Church. Burial will be at Public Cemetery. 


Visitation for Williams is scheduled for 2-6 p.m. Tuesday at West Memorial Funeral Home. Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the city''s Sportsplex, 405 Lynn Lane, Starkville. Burial will follow at Rest Haven Cemetery.




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