Did a Household Item Spark This Fire?

By Leigh Frillici / 11 News (reprinted from KHOU.com, 11/17/2007)

A desperate 911 call from a mother trying to save her family from a fire.

"Oh my god it's spreading please hurry!" she told the 911 operator.

It was 2 in the morning February 2006 when smoke turned into fire and then chaos.

Coisha Toliver, visiting her sister Roshanda Hamilton in Bryan, desperately tried to get seven children out of the burning home.

"I don't know how Victor got past either one of us," Toliver said.

He ran directly into the fire, because the fire was blocking the front door.

Hamilton's 5-year-old twins were suddenly trapped in a fiery room. While the rest of the family ran out the back, Toliver went back in and rescued the twins.

"I was crawling my way through to the, around the kitchen and over to the hallway," she said. "I saw Victor, and then after I saw Victor, I thought we had all the kids."

They didn't. Nine-year-old Brandon and 7-year-old Gabrielle died in the fire.

Victor and Vickia were so badly burned by the fire that most of the pictures are too disturbing to show on television. Victor lived only 77 more days. His twin Vickia survived but now lives with burns over one-third of her body.

All that's left is a lot and some grass. The struggles of that night are over, but the next battle is going to be over looking at just how that fire started. Some people claim your family's safety could be at risk as well.

11 News asked Bryan fire inspector James Jones what happened.

"Fire appeared to start behind the couch, and the only fire source we could determine was an electrical cord back there and an electrical plug," Jones said.

That plug is what Randy Sorrels believes started the fire. He's the victims' attorney.

"It was the circumstance where the perfect storm came together," Sorrels said. "the origin patterns suggest it came right from the location of the cooper outlet."

He's now suing Houston company Cooper Industries, pointing to its Cooper 1232 30-amp 250-volt outlet as the cause.

It's a widely available device, and the Hamilton's heating unit was plugged into it.

"What our investigation revealed is that they were actually installing this nut backwards," Sorrels said.

"They" are the workers at the manufacturing plant in Mexico where the outlet is made. Sorrels' legal team videotaped the process.

"You can see it's very wobbly, however if you place it over the way it should have been placed inside this connector, it doesn't move," Sorrels said.

Electrical experts told 11 News if the connections aren't tight in an electrical device, it could overheat and burn.

11 News was there as another Cooper 1232 outlet was opened up -- this one from a Canadian resident who complained the outlet started to smoke. It appears the nut was not screwed on tightly.

Cooper Industries declined an on-camera interview but sent this statement:

"Metals specialists ... [and] electrical engineers ... have examined the receptacle that was in the Hamilton home and see no evidence of the design and manufacturing defects alleged by Plaintiffs' attorneys. Contrary to any claim by the plaintiffs' attorneys, the same experts have concluded that either nut orientation in the assembly of the receptacle is safe."

"With God and us sticking with each other we'll get through it," Hamilton said.

The Hamiltons and the Tollivers are getting through by focusing on the little things.

"My birthday is coming up," 7-year-old Ronald Branch said.

"I like to draw owls," Vickia said.

Meanwhile, the scars of that night - may be put into the hands of a jury - to decide just how that fire started and if a common electrical outlet is to blame.