MONARCH - An early morning fire in the Monarch community near St. Charles claimed the life of a father and his 11-year-old daughter Friday, said Lee County Sheriff Gary Parsons.
Investigators say Jimmy Lee Laningham, 50, and Leila Louise Laningham, 11, may have gotten disoriented by smoke while trying to flee from an upstairs bedroom.
Lt. Taylor Scott, an investigator with the Lee County Sheriff's Department, said the cause of the blaze is not yet known, and a team of arson investigators from the Virginia State Police is assisting in the investigation as to the cause. Scott said arson is not suspected, but it is a matter of policy to call in arson investigators when a fatality is involved.
"At this point, we don't exactly know how the fire started. They had electrical space heaters to heat the home, and with that there are a variety of things that could go wrong - from overheated wiring to the heaters being too close to things," said Scott.
Sabrina Laningham, another daughter, said the family of six lived in the home, but she had spent the night with friends, and her two brothers had spent the night with a nearby aunt. Like Scott, she suspected a heater may have been involved with starting the tragic blaze, which she believes may have started shortly after 2:30 a.m.
"Mom was lucky she made it out," she said.
Scott said the fire department was called in about 3 a.m., and by the time firefighters got on the scene the two-story frame structure was completely engulfed in flames.
The investigator said the father was the first to notice the fire, so he awakened his wife and told her to flee while he went to rescue the daughter. The mother left the home thinking her husband and daughter were right behind her. However, after getting outside she noticed her family had not made it out. She attempted to re-enter the home, but when she opened the door and the flames got more oxygen, the heat and flames drove her back.
"That was probably a good thing," Scott said. "This was about the worst fire scene I've seen. It was bad."
Scott added that the mother had to be taken from the scene to Lee Regional Medical Center, where she was admitted for observation for smoke inhalation. She remained hospitalized Friday evening.
Apparently the father had located the daughter in her upstairs room at the back of the house but became disoriented by the smoke and ended up in another upstairs bedroom at the front of the structure, said Scott, who added that the two were found together.
Scott said he has no idea how long it will take to complete the investigation into the fire's cause.
LCSD Maj. Jimmy Woodard said St. Charles Elementary School Principal Brian Dean will open the school today and Monday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. each day to accept donations for assisting the rest of the family. Donations of cash, clothing, household supplies and any other items will be accepted and appreciated, he said.