Overnight fire on Milwaukee's north side kills church deacon and his two sons

United Christian Church confirmed that 83-year-old Ernest Ray Sr., and his two sons Ernie and Ervin died in a house fire on Milwaukee's north side.
United Christian Church confirmed that 83-year-old Ernest Ray Sr., and his two sons Ernie and Ervin died in a house fire on Milwaukee's north side.

Three people died from a house fire that started early Wednesday morning near North 33rd Street and West Fairmount Avenue.

A minister, Dimitri Mack, with United Christian Church confirmed that a deacon, Ernest Ray Sr., 83, and his two sons, Ernest Jr., 57, and Erwin, 54, died in the fire.

"(Ray) was a man of character, truly loved his family, loved his church family, loved his community. Just an outstanding person. A one-of-kind person," Mack said.

Ray had been taking care of his two sons, who had disabilities, Mack said.

United Christian Church recently merged with Mount Ephraim Baptist Church. Prior to the merger, Ray was a deacon with the old church for roughly 12 years, Mack said. United Christian Church is located at 5620 N. 38th St., roughly a mile from his home.

Mike Thornton, 37, a neighbor of Ray's, said Ray had lived on the block for around 20 years. "It's sad," he said. "He was a nice person. He would talk to everyone."

Firefighters work at the scene of a triple fatality fire Wednesday, March 29, 2023 at the intersection of N. 33rd St. and W. Fairmount Ave. in Milwaukee, Wis.
Firefighters work at the scene of a triple fatality fire Wednesday, March 29, 2023 at the intersection of N. 33rd St. and W. Fairmount Ave. in Milwaukee, Wis.

Speaking in front of the home shortly before noon Wednesday, Fire Chief Aaron Lipski said it did not appear the home had a working smoke detector.

Firefighters from Milwaukee and the North Shore Fire Department arrived within three minutes of receiving reports of a fire, around 4:30 a.m., and came upon a home with "heavy, heavy fire blowing out" of windows in the basement and a first-floor bedroom.

"That’s critically important because that smoke alarm can really provide an early alert for people," Lipski said. "4:30 in the morning is an awful time for people who have been sleeping all night."

More: Judge holds landlord responsible in a 2019 electrical Milwaukee fire that killed two people

The fire likely started due to an appliance or utility as the origin point was located near the basement furnace and water heater, he said. The exact cause has not been determined, but Lipski said it is not suspicious and the property had no outstanding code violations.

All three men were found on the first floor of the home. Deputy Fire Chief Erich Roden said two people were hospitalized before succumbing to their injuries and the third person was pronounced dead at the scene.

Soon after entering the home, firefighters reported signs of structural collapse – with the second floor caving into the first and the first floor caving into the basement.

"Firefighting operations and search and rescue operations happened at the same time," Lipski said. "One, in this case, can't happen without the other based upon the heaviness of the burning and the extent inside the building."

Lipski also said there was a hose burst that slowed down the response to the fire. It took about an hour and a half to get the fire under control, Roden said.

Milwaukee has now totaled seven fatalities from fires this year, after recording 14 in 2021 and 17 in 2022.

The deaths follow a 2021 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation into fatal fires caused by dangerous electrical wiring in rental units. Black residents in the city’s most distressed neighborhoods are hit hardest, and no one is being held responsible, the investigation found.

The news organization found that fires suspected to be started by faulty electrical wiring occur in Milwaukee’s most distressed ZIP code, 53206, at five times the rate of the rest of the city.

Nearly two-thirds of the fires took place in ZIP codes that are predominantly Black, the investigation found.

The cause of Wednesday’s fire was not yet determined. The home is located in the 53209 ZIP code.

But this latest incident underscores the risk of fire present in many of the homes in the area.

More: Tips for renters to avoid electrical problems: Check outlets, test light switches, research the property, know your rights

Smoke detectors a necessity, officials emphasize

Lipski and Mayor Cavalier Johnson emphasized the amount of resources required to fight the blaze – 62 firefighters were on scene – when a smoke detector could've played an early critical role in controlling the fire and saving lives.

Lipski said crews were going to go door to door in the neighborhood to offer inspections of smoke detectors and free installation. Any Milwaukee resident can also call the Milwaukee Fire Department to arrange for an installation.

"What you see before you is a tragic fire that has had deadly consequences and it takes brave men and women ... to take their own safety out of the equation to go in to make sure that they protect and serve people," Johnson said.

He added that residents should check their detectors twice a year during the switch to and from daylight saving time, a standard rule of thumb.

“That’s the reminder twice a year that you make sure that your batteries are in your smoke detectors, that you test the alarm, make sure these things work because they save lives in the event of a fire like the one we saw just this morning here,” Johnson said.

More: 'Horrible' tragedy: Milwaukee man killed in fire, cause undetermined

How to receive a free smoke alarm

Any Milwaukee residents who are in need of a smoke alarm can call the city’s smoke alarm hotline, at 414-286-8980, to arrange a free installation.

This article was corrected to reflect the birthname of two of the victims.

Sophie Carson and Drake Bentley of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 3 dead after Milwaukee fire near N. 33rd Street, W. Fairmount Avenue