Two dead after apartment fire on Layne Drive

According to neighbors at the scene, a mother and child were killed in the fire, while the father managed to escape
DTL Staff
Staff Writer

Overloaded extension cords may have sparked a late-night apartment fire that claimed the life of a pregnant 24-year-old mother who was trying to save her 1-year-old daughter.

Clay County Coroner Alvin Carter identified the victims as Shayla C. Swain and her daughter, Serenity Cox. The infant had only recently been released from LeBonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis after trachea surgery and was on a breathing machine.

According to witnesses and firefighters, the little girl was in her crib and the mother was found next to it on the second floor of Unit 32 at 23 Layne Drive in West Point.

It was the west end unit in a four-unit building.

Carter could not confirm whether Shayla was pregnant, but others at the complex said she was five months along.

The child's father, Stefon Cox, and the couple's other child, 2-year-old Trinity, escaped the blaze, which was reported to West Point firefighters just moments after midnight Tuesday night, according to Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne.

Investigators from the state Fire Marshal's office spent several hours going through the remains of the apartment Wednesday morning. At one point, they took a distraught Cox through the unit to ask questions and identify some of the items charred by the blaze that burned through the roof.

The roof then collapsed partially into the three other units in the building. The heat from the fire melted the grill on Swain's Ford Firestar minivan parked in front of their unit and the front of a Buick Rainier parked next to it that belonged to their neighbors.

A bystander pointed out  how a "Fight Breast Cancer" sticker on the back of Swain's car was an ironic reminder that "we shouldn't take anything for granted." 

According to Wilbourne, the fire apparently started in a rear room on the first floor.

"Right now we are leaning toward accidental, but we don't know that for sure yet. We still are looking at some things," Wilbourne said, noting Cox was able to identify some charred items and where they were plugged in.

Swain and Cox had been asleep in that room at some point and the children upstairs, Wilbourne said of the scenario investigators still are piecing together.

Cox told firefighters he woke up to heavy smoke and broke out the sliding glass back door that led to a deck. He ran around to the front of the apartment and found his wife there holding the 2-year-old.

He took that child and Swain ran back into the burning unit to try to save the other child.

West Point police officers were the first on the scene and arrived to find the apartment fully involved upstairs and downstairs, Wilbourne said. Firefighters arrived moments later to the same scene.

"There was nothing anyone could have done," the chief described, shaking his head as investigators sorted through the debris and nearby residents looked on.

Firefighters described the apartment as being "filled with belongings."

That and the 1970s-era wood paneling on the walls gave the flames "plenty of fuel" once they got started.

Cox was treated at North Mississippi Medical Center for cuts and scrapes and the child for smoke inhalation.

"They were a sweet young family," said Rev. Richard Shamblin, of Pilgrim Grove Missionary Baptist Church where he had recently christened Trinity and baptized Stefon. 

Shamblin spent much of the morning at the hospital and at the complex trying to help other families and connect them to the American Red Cross, which was providing needed items for the families.

The units are owned by Mike Henson and his son, Richard, at Henson Construction.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to these families, it is such a tragedy," Mike Henson said as he and his son stood in the parking lot seeing what they could do to assist fire investigators and the other families in the building. Crews were securing the building Wednesday afternoon to prevent looters.

The Hensons also were trying to get other tenants into different units if they wanted.

The three other units in the building received smoke and water damage and some fire damage when the burning roof collapsed.

Carla Foster and James Watts lived in the two apartments at the other end of the building and neither were at home. Foster was at a friend's and Watts was at work and learned of the fire when he was called to make sure he wasn't inside his unit.

Tarrance Petty and his girlfriend, Jessica Rias, and their 9-month-old baby boy lived in the apartment adjacent to Unit 32.

"She woke up to go to the bathroom and smelled the smoke and heard someone screaming. She woke me up and I smelled bad smoke. She told me to get the baby, that the apartment was on fire," said Petty.

"I grabbed the baby and we ran downstairs and out. I went back in ours to see if there was anything I could save real quick. Smoke was all through the house," he described.

"I saw him, he was outside, bleeding, he was bloody, he had one baby, there were flames everywhere downstairs in their apartment. The mother had gone back in," Petty said of Cox.

An explosion convinced him not to go back into his own unit.

"It was a loud boom, a big boom, really big," he described.

Firefighters say it likely was one of the oxygen canisters used for Serenity's treatment. One was found exploded near the front door of the unit.

"They were good people, they always waved," Petty said of his neighbors.

This is a developing story. The Daily Times Leader will have updates as they come available.