According to Wheaton Fire Chief Bob Lombard, two men, two women and a child living in an eight-unit brick building located south of Wheaton High School perished from probable smoke inhalation.
The fire marshal was on the scene on Thursday morning trying to determine the cause of the blaze. Lombard said the fire broke out in the center of the building, blocking the exits.
"We tried to get to them [the victims], but they were all dead," Lombard said.
The apartment building, a two-story structure with four units on the first floor and four on the second, was estimated to be about 12 years old. All of the fatalities were in second story apartments, two in the southwest corner and three in the northeast corner.
Firefighters were alerted to the blaze around 3:20 a.m., and they found the fire had broken through the roof by the time they arrived.
A call for an ambulance was made at 3:37 a.m. A request for additional firefighters brought Monett firefighters, who rolled out of their station at 4:26 a.m. within a minute of receiving the summons. Fire Chief Tom Jones brought Monett's ladder truck. Monett Rural firefighters brought a tanker.
Firemen from Wheaton, Purdy, Butterfield, Exeter, Fairview and the two Monett departments responded to the scene. Lombard said there were around 60 firefighters and credited Barry County's 911 system for helping to get a quick response.
Firefighters battled the blaze for several hours. Jones said Monett's ladder truck provided a strategic addition. The truck was first positioned on the south side of the building and used to reach the first two victims while spraying water over top of the south side. Then the truck was moved to the north side, wetting down the scene and helping to remove the other three victims.
Vehicles in the bus barn for the Wheaton School District, located north of the apartments, were evacuated. Residents in an adjacent but unconnected second apartment building west of the fire were evacuated as well. With the wind coming from the south, smoke infiltration into the adjacent apartment building was thought to be minimal and the residents would be able to return.
Police Chief Clinton Clark said the fire was the worst disaster he had seen in his 22 years with the department.
Two representatives from the Red Cross responded to the scene. An emergency center was opened in the Wheaton Community Center, located next to the lumber yard. Residents displaced by the fire were moved there.
While the Red Cross representatives left to secure arrangements, the Community Center turned into a beehive of activity. Word spread through the Wheaton Ministerial Alliance by word of mouth, bringing a steady stream of people with clothes, bottled water and food. Around 10 a.m. the firemen came to center to rest and eat.
The manager of the apartments said she was working on finding housing accommodations for the displaced residents. A representative for Bell Management was on scene by 10:15 a.m. and had located apartments in Wheaton's senior housing complex and in Purdy that would serve as temporary accommodations.