Investigators have concluded that a fatal Nineveh house fire was accidental and was started by candles in the home’s living room.
Based on interviews with witnesses, investigators said 22-month-old Hailey Lynn Slusher-Abbott was playing near multiple lit candles before the fire started, and a candle started the deadly blaze, Johnson County Coroner Craig Lutz said.
The Nov. 22 fire killed Hailey and her brother, 5-month-old John Ryan Slusher-Abbott. Their mother Sirena Slusher-Abbott, 27, tried repeatedly to reach the children who were trapped in the house and later died from severe burns and smoke inhalation.
The nearly four-month fire investigation was conducted by multiple agencies, including the state fire marshal’s office, the Johnson County Coroner’s Office and the Nineveh Volunteer Fire Department. Investigators interviewed neighbors, bystanders and the fire’s only survivor, 6-year-old Aley Slusher-Abbott.
Last week, the investigators ruled that the fire was accidental and had been started by a candle in the living room. But they don’t know every detail of what happened that day and likely never will, Lutz said.
Investigators know that the fire started before 5 p.m. in the living room of the second-floor apartment, which also served as baby John Ryan’s bedroom.
Witnesses — whom Lutz declined to identify — said they saw 22-month-old Hailey playing with a candle in the room. Investigators can’t know more specifically how the fire started and what Hailey was doing with candles because her mother died and the witnesses provided vague information, Lutz said.
They also do not know where Sirena Slusher-Abbott was when the fire started, since she was outside the house when emergency workers arrived, Lutz said. She tried repeatedly to get back into the home to save her two children. Her 6-year-old daughter Aley got out and ran to a neighbor’s house for help.
The day of the fire, neighbors said Sirena Slusher-Abbott was screaming, asking for her babies and saying she had candles burning in the living room. Emergency workers, including Johnson County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Prince’s Lakes police officers, also tried to get into the home but were unable to because of the heat of the fire.
Firefighters spent several hours putting out the flames, which at one point reached 60 feet into the air. Their work was made more challenging by the burning of a staircase that was the only entrance into the apartment. After the flames were out, firefighters searched the home into the night. In the living room, they found the bodies of the two children, who died from burns and smoke inhalation.
The children’s father, Chris Abbott, was at work in Columbus when the fire started and didn’t find out about the blaze until he arrived at home. Because he wasn’t at the house when the fire started, he didn’t have any information to add to the investigators’ report, Abbott said.
The Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office, Nineveh Fire Department, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Indianapolis Fire Department and the coroner’s office had been investigating the blaze since November.
The investigation took nearly four months because the agencies were interviewing and re-interviewing witnesses and studying photographs from the scene, Lutz said. Sometimes, witnesses remember details later that they forgot initially, he said. Insurance companies are still investigating the fire, but what they’re doing doesn’t impact whether the state can close its investigation, he said. No charges are being filed in the case.
“It’s a very traumatic, unfortunate situation. It’s very sad,” he said.
The case is closed, but the investigators will stay in touch with the Abbott family to ensure they’re recovering from the trauma, and may glean additional information about the fire from Aley if she eventually can talk about what she saw, Lutz said. The state fire marshal’s office has been careful about questioning Aley, but she doesn’t talk about the fire, so no one else knows what she saw, grandmother Mary Frick said.
“With the trauma that was done, especially being a child, we have to be delicate. We don’t want to push and pry,” Lutz said.