May 12, 2007

Relatives sift through rubble for memories

Charred home yields little as teen prepares to bury family
By Michelle Hunters


One day after a two-alarm fire swept through an Old Jefferson home, killing a couple and their teenage daughter, relatives of the victims sifted through the blackened rubble Friday afternoon looking for any keepsakes that might have survived the flames.


"Everything was lost. We're trying to salvage a photograph, something," said Julie Church, 40, sister of Lisa Owens, 42, who died in the early Thursday morning fire at 204 Coolidge St.


Also killed were Owens' husband, Mike Owens, 44, and their daughter, Kathryn, 15. The coroner's office has said they died of smoke inhalation. The only person to escape the house was the couple's son, Mikey, 13, who jumped from his first-floor bedroom window. Church said he is staying with his grandfather in Des Allemands.


"We're going to do everything we can to make sure Mikey is well taken care of," she said.


As of Friday afternoon, investigators had not determined the cause of the fire. The case remains under investigation, said George Rigamer, a spokesman for the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department.


In the meantime, relatives have finalized funeral arrangements for the family. Church said services for all three will be held Monday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 444 Metairie Road, Metairie.


A fund has been set up for Mikey Owens at Whitney National Bank by members of his father's college fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, which Mike Owens joined when he attended Tulane University. St. Francis Xavier School, where Mikey Owens is a student, also has set up a fund in his name, at First Bank and Trust.


The teen has lost just about all of his possessions, Church said. Relatives have been able to retrieve one scorched box of photographs, a pair of cypress wood armoires with sentimental value and Katie Owens' antique bed. The search for mementos has been difficult for all involved.


"Three people dying at one time is horrific," Church said. "Your brain can't even wrap around it. You just function on pause."


Lisa Owens' death has been especially difficult for Bethany Ballard, 21. Owens legally adopted Ballard, her younger sister, 13 years ago after their mother died.


"She is doubly devastated," Church said of Ballard.


Also grieving are the friends, neighbors and classmates of the Owens family who continued to add to the growing memorial in front of the family's home. They brought more flowers, posters, banners and pictures in tribute to the family Friday.


Students at St. Mary's Dominican High School in New Orleans, where Katie Owens was a freshman, participated in a balloon release in her memory earlier Friday.


Members of the all-girls school formed a circle in the courtyard at noon and listened to a poem written by Katie Owens and read by her best friend, Colleen Johnson, 15. After a few other words, the girls released 15 black and blue balloons, one for every year of her life, according to Yvonne Cappel-Vickery, 16, a Dominican student who lives on Coolidge Street and grew up with Katie Owens.


"Once the balloons were released, everyone really just broke down," she said.


The Owens' deaths marked the first three fire fatalities in Jefferson Parish in 2007, said Rigamer, the same number reported for all of 2006. Fire officials have said the Owens family might have survived if their home had had smoke detectors. Investigators who searched the house did not find any smoke alarms, which would have provided the family with some warning.


Now Mikey Owens and his relatives are preparing to bury their loved ones on Monday. The 13-year-old is handling it the best he can, Church said.


"I don't think he understands the ramifications and the permanency of it," she said. "I don't, and I'm 40."

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Donations for Mikey Owens can be made to the fund set up by Delta Kappa Epsilon at any local Whitney National Bank branch or to the fund established by St. Francis Xavier School at any local First Bank and Trust.




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