Relatives question firefighters’ response in wake of fatal Las Vegas apartment blaze

Relatives of the woman who died after an east valley apartment fire early Sunday are raising concerns about the Clark County Fire Department’s response that morning, specifically that crews didn’t find the woman’s body — a maintenance man did, shortly after the blaze.

As fire crews packed up their equipment — and after an ambulance had pulled away from the 4450 Karen Ave. apartment complex — the maintenance man found a lifeless Taneshia Smith, a 28-year-old mother of four, in a bathtub.

She was fully clothed, seemingly hiding from the flames, a relative said. Along the hall and in the bathroom, there were fingerprints and handprints — signs she tried to escape.

The maintenance man went inside the charred apartment only at the request of the fire department to help with a leaking pipe, a neighbor said. He soon came running out, screaming from the apartment’s balcony, “There’s a body in the bathtub! There’s a body in the bathtub!”

Fire crews then went back inside, where they retrieved Smith. As the ambulance made its way back to the complex, fire crews tried to revive her on the sidewalk as the neighbor and his 5-year-old child watched.

“My kids used to play with her kids,” he said Thursday morning, as his two children played outside together.

After she was loaded into an ambulance, the neighbor said firefighters paused, sitting with their heads down, quiet.

In a statement Sunday, the fire department described the 8:45 a.m. blaze as a “high-level structural fire.” They responded with four engines, one rescue and two battalion chiefs.

“Crews made an offensive fire attack, experiencing zero visibility on the fire floor and high temperatures,” the statement said. It added that one woman died after being taken to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center in critical condition, but there was no mention that crews weren’t the ones who found her.

The day after the fire, the department backtracked on the severity of the flames.

A statement issued Monday read the fire, which caused $50,000 in damage and originated in the second-floor apartment’s kitchen, was “almost extinguished by a broken water line located in the attic space above the fire” when crews arrived.

The department clarified that the apartment was filled with smoke, and that after crews knocked down the remaining flames, cleared out the smoke and searched the apartment, they retreated to the parking lot to ask the maintenance man about securing the water leak. That’s when he found the body by himself.

“She was a good-spirited person,” said Shane Shelton, the father of her children, who are 6, 8, 10 and 11. He said she was a great mother and she wasn’t afraid to tell anyone exactly what she thought.

He was thankful the children were staying with him the morning the 8:45 a.m. blaze started. But he was also “extremely angry.”

He and a few other relatives and neighbors were frustrated that the fire department ”didn’t do their jobs.” Together, they gathered at a vigil in front of her apartment Sunday, which had candles and signs that read “RIP Wenny,” a nickname.

“Every smile you see here is a front,” one neighbor said. “We’re trying to keep strong, but we don’t know why this happened.”

The last anyone heard from Smith was a Snapchat she sent out at 5 a.m.

On Thursday, two members of the county’s building fire prevention team stood outside the complex’s leasing office “to find out what happened.” They declined to answer questions.

“The Clark County Fire Department is deeply saddened by the passing of Taneshia Smith,” another statement, issued Tuesday, read. “Like all of the community, our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends as they endure this difficult and trying time.”

The statement added that the department would not comment further on the fatal fire, citing it was under investigation.

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Rachel Crosby contributed to this story. Contact Lawren Linehan at llinehan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Find her on Twitter: @LawrenLinehan

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