Mitchell man's quick action saves two from fatal fire
Authorities: Cigarette lighter was cause, criminal charges may be filed
Steven Dirkes said he acted instinctively early Thursday morning when he ran into 515 N. Wisconsin St. and saved two small children from the burning house.
Dirkes, who noticed the fire around midnight from his home across the street, said the fire grew too quickly in the one to two minutes he was inside for him to get to a third child, a 6-year-old girl who was found deceased after the Mitchell Fire Division extinguished the blaze.
"The fire just went from little to giant, and I couldn't get up the stairs,” Dirkes told The Daily Republic on Thursday afternoon. “I couldn't breathe. I couldn't make it to the other kid. I got a ladder and went to the back window to try to, but (there was) too much smoke."
Authorities announced Friday morning that the fire was caused by the children, who were left in the house alone for about an hour before the fire started, playing with a cigarette lighter. Dirkes and a friend found the two surviving children, ages 4 and 7, in the home's ground floor and on the stairs.
First responders reportedly attempted to save the life of the 6-year-old, whose name has not been released, but they were unable to do so.
Criminal charges related to the children being left unattended may be filed, police announced Friday, but no arrests had been made as of Friday morning. The two surviving children were placed in protective custody following the fire.
Mitchell's police and fire divisions were assisted with an investigation Thursday by the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the state fire marshal's office and a K-9 unit. Mitchell Fire Marshal Shannon Sandoval said Thursday it's typical for a number of investigative agencies to be called in for a fatal fire.
Late Thursday morning, law enforcement released the house back to Mid-Dakota Properties, the company which owns the property and was renting it to a woman and her three children since September. Owner Boyd Reimnitz said having the house turned back over indicates the fire wasn't caused by anything for which Mid-Dakota Properties would be liable, such as wiring or appliances.
Boyd and Destiny Reimnitz said they heard smoke detectors going off in the house when they arrived at the scene shortly after midnight. Boyd Reimnitz said he was asked to provide information on work that had been done on the property within the past two years.
"Everything we touched in the building, they looked at," he said.
Reimnitz said the house, which was boarded up Thursday, will be torn down when permitted by the city. He's now awaiting a separate investigation to be completed by an insurance investigator.
According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration, residential structure fires accounted for 61.5 percent of all South Dakota fire-related deaths in 2018, compared to a 75 percent national average, and 67 residential fire fatalities have been recorded in the state since 2010.
Thursday's fire is the fifth house fire in Mitchell to result in a fatality within the last decade and is the first of those recorded in more than five years.
On an afternoon in September of 2014, a burning candle was determined to have been the source of an accidental fire at 515 W. Third Ave. Tylor Kostrzewski, an 18-year-old Kimball native and student at Mitchell Technical Institute, died in the fire. Five others were able to escape the house that became engulfed in flames. That house was also owned by Mid-Dakota Properties. Reimnitz said in the time he's owned and managed about 270 properties around Mitchell, there have been several that have been destroyed completely in fires. In that time, Kostrzewski and the 6-year-old were the two fatalities.
Just shy of a year earlier, 42-year-old Chris Buckley was pronounced dead after his 813 Vincent Place home caught fire in Mitchell. The residence was a Lustron house, a home kit made between 1949 and 1959 and marketed as being fireproof. Authorities said the all-steel house intensified the damage, making it unclear what caused the fire, but it was thought to have started in a bedroom.
Mitchell saw two residential fire-related fatalities in 2012. On April 20, five people were treated for smoke inhalation after a fire thought to be related to a dryer damaged a West Sixth Avenue house. Several men who had been nearby when the fire started went into the house to save two boys, ages 5 and 3. Two of those men, both boys and the boys' mother were taken to hospitals. The following day, 3-year-old Jaxon Sehnert died at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls.
Five months after Sehnert's death, 59-year-old Cheryl Roop was killed, three people were treated for smoke inhalation and a trailer home at 900 W. Second Ave. was declared a complete loss in a fire. Investigators were unable to pinpoint what caused the fire but concluded there was no evidence of foul play. Roop's daughter, infant grandson and an adult male were in the trailer in the fire began but were able to escape.