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Fire tragedy a brutal wake-up call for small town

  • Story Highlights
  • Fire killed five people, a 10-year-old boy faces murder and arson charges
  • Greenville, Ohio, facing realities of poverty as jobs leave
  • Residents divided whether boy did it; but united in desire to help town
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By Brad Lendon
CNN
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GREENVILLE, Ohio (CNN) -- The parishioners heard the sirens during Sunday morning services in Greenville, Ohio. A few blocks from St. Paul's Lutheran Church, a home was burning and five people were dead.

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Police tape wards off the curious from the duplex where a woman and four children died in a fire September 16.

Shock followed sadness with news that a 10-year-old boy was being charged with arson and murder, more heartbreak for a town in tough times -- but heartbreak that shook people into action.

The St. Paul's parishioners reacted quickly that morning, said Shirley DiRocco, a volunteer at the church. Just passing the collection plate once around the church, she said, "We came up with $300."

The money went to buy clothes for the fire's survivors and food for the emergency crew who responded, she said.

Helping out is nothing new for the church -- but a boy being accused of killing his mother, half-sister and three other children in a fire has been unheard of till now. There's a lot of introspection going on in Greenville, a small town of 13,000 where the good-paying jobs are getting scarce and the problems of big-city poverty are creeping in.

Residents are divided on whether the boy is responsible, but they say his plight compels them to look at themselves and face their deepening problems.

"He's a young kid. There's something got to be wrong for him to come up with that," said Angie Hughes, manager of a downtown Greenville hair salon.

"It has brought to the surface the fact that in this area ... we do have a lot of folks who are the have-nots in the world ... the vast numbers of people in our community who are really deep in poverty," said Peter B. Menke, pastor of St. Paul's. Video Watch Menke talk about how the tragedy has galvanized Greenville »

St. Paul's sees firsthand the poverty that led to the boy having to sleep on the sofa, because he had no bed in the half of the duplex he shared with nine other people.

Christy Winans managed to escape the fire with her boyfriend, but her three children -- Kayla Winans, 6; Je'Shawn Davis, 5; and Jasmine Davis, 3 -- died along with their playmate Kaysha Palmer, 8, who was the boy's half-sister. The boy's mother, Chanan Palmer, was also killed.

On Monday, as the 10-year-old appeared in court on murder charges, St. Paul's expanded its lunchtime soup kitchen service to run two days a week. Twenty-two people turned up for the meal that first day. The church had fed 70 people, including parents and children, one day this summer.

Menke said the tragedy of September 16 "has galvanized ... particularly the religious community to action. We not just saying 'Yes, we have a problem,' but we are looking at ways to genuinely address those issues and do something about it."

Federal statistics show unemployment is hurting Greenville and surrounding Darke County.

Employment in private businesses fell by 7 percent from 2000 to 2005. Manufacturing companies left town and big employers downsized, like Fram oil filter maker, or closed down completely, like Corning's fiber-optics plant.

Alicia Sommer, who's lived in Greenville for 37 years and taught in the local schools, says job losses have changed the town.

"On the surface it looks like the ideal hometown," she said. "Everyone wants to raise their kids here, but they can't afford it. They have to go where the jobs are," she says, leaning on the counter of the downtown coffee shop where she works part time.

Walking through the five blocks of downtown Greenville, you see why it looks ideal. Mom-and-pop coffee shops stand in for Starbucks, locals chat on a bench outside a music store, a small cinema offers "Mr. Bean's Holiday" and an Asian monster flick about battling dragons.

But St. Paul's offers the soup kitchen only a block off the Broadway main drag, and the tumbledown housing on Montgomery Street, including the burned duplex, is just a two-minute walk away.

Fixing Greenville may be a slow process, and it's unclear if the continuing case against the 10-year-old will slow it further or provide impetus to the effort.

The boy is staying with his maternal grandmother, Tammy Reed, whose daughter died in the fire. The child lost his stepfather to AIDS in July.

"He's doing really good," Reed said of the boy Tuesday morning.

No matter how the case turns out, the boy will bear scars forever, his attorney, David Rohrer, said last week. The boy will always know he was charged with killing his mother. "He'll never be able to escape that," Rohrer said.

In downtown Greenville, salons offered $5 haircuts Tuesday to raise money for the fire victims. The community wanted to help in any way it could, salon manager Hughes said.

Whether that community can also bring Greenville out of its slump may depend on people like Sondra Jackson.

Jackson, a letter carrier, walked her new route Monday down Montgomery Street. It was only her second day of work, she said, and she had no idea of the tragedy that unfolded in the burned duplex two weeks before.

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Jackson said she had just moved to Greenville from Palm Springs, California, where she was born and raised.

"The school system is better in this area, and it's just a better place to raise kids," she said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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