As investigators look into what caused an early-morning fire Wednesday that took three lives, one man — a husband and father — is left to grieve the loss of his family.
Little remains of apartment 336’s kitchen except the likely culprit: a charred pot atop a burned stove.
The fire claimed the lives of Katrena Williams, 42, a veteran Miami-Dade County transit worker, and her two children, Makayla Williams, 12, and Vincent Williams Jr., 3.
“You don’t know what it’s like to get a phone call at 2 in the morning that your family is gone,” Vincent Williams Sr. said, sobbing, too distraught to say much more.
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Williams, also a 15-year Miami-Dade transit worker, was pulling the midnight shift as a rail structural repair worker when the fire engulfed his unit in the Country Lane Apartments at 17000 NW 67th Ave., on the edge of Miami Lakes in unincorporated northwest Miami-Dade.
More than 12 hours after the midnight incident, the pot, charred black, remained in the kitchen, visible through the apartment’s shattered window. Handles on the nearby refrigerator were melted away, and white cabinets and countertops were blackened and littered with debris.
Fire investigators believe all three victims were asleep when the fire began and that they died of smoke inhalation.
“Fire was not a really big factor here,” said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman Jimmy Bou Nassar. “It probably was the smoke.”
Early Wednesday morning, as the blaze swept through the condo, neighbor Arlene Ramirez, 13 — one of Makayla’s best friends — was awakened by the sound of glass breaking.
After her parents told her there was a fire in the apartment building, she heard neighbors frantically yelling for Makayla and her mother. The smoke stopped anyone from going inside the apartment.
“I see my mom crying,” Arlene said. “She was speechless. I thought to myself, this isn’t happening.”
After school Wednesday, Arlene, an eighth-grader at Bob Graham Education Center, sat in a weathered rocking chair on the balcony of her family’s fourth-floor apartment and shared stories about Makayla.
They had become fast friends eight years ago, when Arlene’s family moved to Florida from New York.
Although Makayla and Arlene lived in the same complex, they still had regular sleepovers. She said Makayla was on the cheerleading squad.
“She was like a sister,” Arlene said.
Fire investigators said the building seems to have met state-mandated requirements: A smoke detector inside the home was activated, although it evidently didn’t wake the family. And the four-story, beige building has a sprinkler system, said Miami-Dade Fire Marshal Giovannie Ulloa.
County records show Miami-Dade Fire Rescue inspectors visited the complex in April but were not provided documentation showing that smoke alarms both inside and outside sleeping areas in the building had been certified by a private contractor.
Bou Nassar wouldn’t speculate directly on the fire — noting that it’s early in the investigation — but explained how easily leaving a pot on a stove can turn deadly.
For example, if the pot had food in it, the liquid would have eventually evaporated, and smoke would have billowed before the food caught fire.
Then, anything else on the stove would have caught fire. And the apartment’s low ceilings, plus the cabinets — made of wood or plastic materials — would have ignited.
“All it takes is for one object to ignite,” he said. “A house can catch on fire in the blink of an eye.”
The deaths of the Williams children and Katrena Williams, a 17-year county transit employee who worked as a bus stop clerk, struck home Wednesday with Miami-Dade County workers.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Transit Director Ysela Llort expressed their thoughts and prayers in a press release.
“The sudden and tragic loss of Mrs. Williams and her two beautiful children will be felt by all of us for a long time,” Llort said.
Residents, several who have lived in the condominium complex for years and knew the Williamses, said they extinguished the flames before firefighters arrived.
“There was a lot of smoke,” said Lino Munoz, who was in his fourth-floor apartment when he heard his neighbor scream fire. He said he helped put the blaze out.
When firefighters went in, they removed the toddler first, then Makayla and finally the mom.
The smoke was so thick it was “pitch-black,” said second-floor resident Dylan Oliver.
Miami-Dade Police said they were first notified of the fire at 12:16 a.m., and arrived three minutes later to thick black, billowing smoke. County Fire Rescue arrived at 12:22 a.m. Sixteen fire trucks responded.
Fire Rescue performed CPR on the victims, but it was too late.
Anthony Colden, a building maintenance worker, said the condos were recently checked for smoke detectors.
He said he was at a nearby Denny’s just before sunrise when Vincent Williams’ brother stopped by and broke the news.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Colden, who has known the family for six years. He said Makayla was always at the bus stop with her friends early in the morning and came back at about 3:30 p.m. He described the girl as “very popular.”
Grief counselors were on hand at Makayla’s school, said Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokesman John Schuster.
“They are specifically trained in instances like this to speak with students as well as staff,” he said.
Oliver described the Williamses as a “happy family” and said Katrena and Vincent Williams were always spending time with their kids and working days and nights to provide for them.
“He lost his wife, his kids, his house, everything he worked for,” Oliver said.
Miami Herald staff writer Audra D.S. Burch contributed to this report.