A yellow toy dump truck speckled with dirt rests atop a bookshelf in the Trenton fire chief’s office. The photo of four children who died in a house fire last May is attached to the truck, which came from the backyard of the house that burned down.
It is a daily reminder for the firefighters in Trenton of the lives lost that day. Cissy Hughes, grandmother to three of the children, said she knows the firefighters share her family’s pain.
“I heard the stories and the horrors they live with,” Hughes said. “They are the ones that suffer like our family suffers. They share that loss.”
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of the four children: Roseanna, 7, Rolanda, 6, Mason, 4, and Saylem, 3.
The children’s father and Hughes’ son, Timothy, tried to reach the children when the blaze broke out May 2, 2015, but could not. The stairs of the home, located at 1308 Norton Ave., had collapsed. The electrical fire started on the second floor in a ceiling fan in the room where the children were sleeping.
“We get a lot of support all year long from the community,” Hughes said. “They know it affects us every single day. We get hugs when people see us.”
The family’s youngest, Marley, her mother Jamie and aunt Silvia were not home the night of the fire. Silvia, mother to Saylem, had been living there, too.
Firefighters found a smoke detector on the rental home’s first floor, but not the second floor where the fire originated. Lt. Doug Franklin, one of the first Trenton firefighters to respond to the fire, said the loss of those four children sparked an emphasis on fire prevention in the city of Trenton.
Trenton City Council approved new safety requirements for rental properties last summer. All rental properties, which now have to be registered with the city, that had a change of occupancy starting July 14, 2015, were required to be compliant with the new safety regulations.
The city gave all other properties until April 1, 2016, to implement the changes, which included having visible fire extinguishers in individual units and smoke detectors powered either by an AC source with 9-volt battery backup or a battery powered sealed smoke detector with a 10-year battery life.
Now, firefighters inspect rental properties each time there is a change in renters to ensure those regulations are being met.
Those changes were proposed before the May 2 house fire because 70 percent of all house fires in Trenton were happening at rental properties. However, the fire on Norton Avenue increased the city’s focus on those ordinances and on fire safety, Franklin said.
The city’s fire department began working with the Red Cross on a smoke detector program in October 2014, installing free smoke detectors in any home who requested it.
“It started before the Norton Street fire, but it didn’t really take off until after it,” Franklin said.
Lt. Robert Romesburg, Trenton fire marshal, said firefighters have installed 379 smoke detectors in 87 homes since launching that program. Firefighters installed about 137 smoke detectors last May but averaged only about 10 smoke detectors each month prior to that.
Romesburg said Trenton’s schools have increased fire prevention education since last May. Firefighters visited a couple of classrooms in October and held a fire drill. Smoke detectors sounded as firefighters dressed in their full gear crawled out of the classrooms with students. Romesburg is working with the schools to expand fire safety education this fall.
Hughes said the man who owns the house on Norton agreed to donate the land to the family to build a memorial.
“I’m still fighting with the city to get the house torn down,” Hughes said. “We have to drive by this house everyday.”
She hopes the city will demolish the structure soon. Her family has plans to place benches on the property and to plant a garden in honor of the four children.
Trenton Fire Chief Rick Morris doesn’t need to drive past the house on Norton to be reminded of the four children. He sees their photo on the toy dump truck in his office every day.
“That fire was hard on my guys,” Morris said. “It affected this department. It affected the community.”
Hughes said she thinks highly of the work Trenton’s fire department does. She helped promote the recently approved quarter-cent sales tax that will fund new equipment and a training center for the fire department. She organized a motorcycle ride and event Sunday in honor of the four children, with all proceeds going to the fire department. She plans to host the event each May.
Hughes described Sunday’s event as a positive distraction.
“Today’s going to be a good day, but tomorrow’s going to be hell,” Hughes said Sunday.