A fire that claimed the lives of a mother and two children on North Whidbey on Sunday was a tragic accident, according to detectives, fire investigators and the coroner.
There was nothing suspicious about the fire or the deaths, they all agreed. Suspicions circulating on social media are simply wrong.
“There is nothing that makes it even the least bit suspicious,” Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill said in an interview Thursday. He’s an experienced fire investigator and part of the team that investigated the cause of the tragedy this week.
A neighbor of the DeGraff Road home reported the fire at 4:36 p.m. after looking out the window and seeing the glow of the fire. The blaze claimed the lives of Laura White, 25, and her two children, Ivylynn, 5, and Imriel, 3.
Alexzander White, White’s husband and father of the children, was shopping in Burlington at the time of the fire. Receipts and other evidence confirm this, according to detectives.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown called a press conference Thursday to update the media on the investigation and dispel rumors. Television news crews from Seattle attended the meeting at the Heller Road fire station in Oak Harbor.
The case was initially investigated as a potential homicide, but detectives are no longer pursuing it as a criminal matter.
“This is a tragic accident that occurred, unfortunately, just before Christmas,” said Detective Ed Wallace with the Island County Sheriff’s Office.
In an interview, Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said autopsies were performed Wednesday. The cause of the deaths is fire and the manner is accidental, he determined. Toxicology results will provide more specifics.
Bishop said evidence is conclusive that the woman and children were alive prior to the fire.
Merrill said the fire started in the back of the house where the bedrooms were located. He said the investigation isn’t complete, but investigators are looking at two possible sources of the fire; the cause was almost certainly electrical.
A space heater may have been involved in the fire, he said. The space heater and a wood stove were the only source of heat in the home. He expects that information from the state lab in the next couple of weeks should provide a conclusive answer on the source.
The home was fully involved when firefighters arrived. Laura White’s body was found outside of the house. Merrill said she was able to escape through a living room window. Investigators speculated that she may have suffered fatal injuries in trying to get to the children, whose bodies were found together in a bedroom they shared in the back of the house.
“From everything we can tell, Mrs. White died trying to get help for her children,” Wallace said. “We want that to be very clear.”
While fires are more likely to be fatal if they occur at night when people are sleeping, daytime fatalities from fires do happen, Merrill said. Carbon monoxide and smoke from fires affect people’s brains and make them disoriented.
“The brain just doesn’t think clearly,” he said.
According to Merrill, the house was built in the 1950s and an addition was added in the 1960s. It was being remodeled when the fire occurred.
Merrill explained that older homes don’t have as much fire-resistant construction. There’s more exposed wood and less sheet rock, which is fire resistant, than in newer homes.
A neighbor reported seeing smoke coming from the home about an hour before the fire was reported. Merrill said Alexzander White tried to start the wood stove before he left at about 4 p.m., which could be the source of the smoke.
Laura White was a stay-at-home mother for the two young children. She grew up in Arizona.
Her Facebook page hadn’t been updated lately, but provided a glimpse into her life. She was at times joyful, funny, sad and angry. She loved music and enjoyed video games, particularly World of Warcraft. She was a strong supporter of the Navy, though she experienced the loneliness of having a husband on deployment. She cared for her pets, but had no love for spiders.
Her love for her children was obvious from the stories and photos she posted.
Alexzander White is a Navy aviation ordnanceman with VAQ-129 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. His fellow sailors set up a GoFundMe page for him.
“No amount of money can help him get his family back, but we as people can help him get back on his feet,” it states.
Reporter Michael Watkins contributed to this story.