Four children die in Wakonda fire Emergency crews seal the east side of a Wakonda farmhouse where four children died in Friday morning's fire. The corner of the house sustained extensive smoke damage from a smoldering fire. The children were believed to have died from smoke inhalation. The state fire marshall was investigating the fire, whose origin remained unknown. (Photo by Kellie Smedsrud, Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan) by Randy Dockendorf, Yankton P&D A Friday morning house fire has claimed the lives of four children, ages 4 to 17, living on an acreage about five miles southeast of Wakonda.
Allyson Eckert, 17; Austin Eckert, 10; Cole Eckert, 6, and Carli Eckert, 4, apparently died of smoke inhalation, the Clay County sheriff's office said. Their parents are Brian and Rhonda Eckert of rural Wakonda.
Funeral services for the four children will be held 2 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 11, in the Wakonda High School gymnasium. Visitation will begin one hour prior to the services on Tuesday. Burial will follow in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery, rural Wakonda.
Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe, in a press release, reported Monday that the investigation into the fire is ongoing by his office and the state fire marshall's office.
It was previously reported that it was unknown if there were working smoke detectors in the home. Howe stated that there were smoke detectors in the home and they did function. Although the smoke detectors did alert, investigators believe the children were overcome by smoke inhalation before they could escape.
A cause of the fire is still under investigation but it has been determined that the fire orginated on the ground floor of the home and was primarily contained in that area.
No foul play is suspected and the investigation is not criminal in nature.
Additional questions should be referred to Clay County Howe at 605-677-7100.
Allyson, Austin and Cole Eckert were students at Wakonda Public Schools. Allyson was a senior at Wakonda High School, while Cole and Austin were in the first and fifth grades, respectively, Superintendent Larry Johnke said.
Wakonda school officials became concerned when the Eckert children were missing from classes Friday morning, Thiesse said.
"The kids did not show up for school this morning, and they made some phone calls. Somebody came to check on them, and that's when the fire was discovered," he said.
"From my understanding, the mom works early in the morning, leaves early in the morning and there's a 17-year-old daughter that gets the kids going to school."
The fire was reported shortly after 9 a.m., Thiesse said.
"I was four miles away (from the house) when we got the call, so I headed right here," he said. "The sheriff, Andy Howe, knows the family well and met with them off-site."
Firefighters initially encountered a great deal of smoke, Thiesse said. Smoke damage was visible on the southeast corner of the two-story white house, but otherwise the building appeared intact from the outside.
"There is no indication of what caused the fire, but it looks like it started in the front corner of the house," the chief deputy said. "You have the smoldering fire inside the house, which is charred black."
Wakonda Fire Chief Mike Pollman declined to release details of the fire Friday morning. However, he noted the large response to the call by area emergency units.
The Wakonda, Vermillion, Gayville and Volin fire departments responded to the fire, as did the Wakonda First Responders and the Vermillion and Yankton County emergency medical services, Pollman said. The Clay County Sheriff's Office and the South Dakota Highway Patrol provided law enforcement at the scene, he added.
Wakonda firefighter Cheryl Vanderkooi was one of the first to respond. The children's grandfather had just pulled two of the younger children out when she arrived, she said.
"It was horrible. They didn't make it," Vanderkooi said. "He got a call saying the kids didn't show up for school, so he went to check on them."
Wakonda school officials informed students that the Eckerts had perished in a fire, and crisis teams were in place in the school system, Johnke said. The Red Cross was also on the scene to meet with the school's staff and 150 students, he said.
Counselors offered to help not only the students and staff but also emergency workers who responded, Johnke said. Counselors and clergy were available for students throughout the day Friday and planned to return today (Saturday) to offer further help, he added.
The superintendent said a lot of the students' questions were hard to answer.
"I think a lot of them are asking, 'Why? Why it happened? Why us?"' he said. "You just try to allow them to share their feelings."
Students were also given counselors' phone numbers in case they needed to talk over the weekend, and a local church was opening its basement after school Friday.
"Sharing amongst themselves is probably better than having them go home alone," Johnke said.
Thiesse said the department's main concern is the family and the community.
"Everybody knew these people," he said. "It's tough for everybody."
The house is located on an otherwise abandoned farmstead. Emergency workers were sealing the open areas where rescuers entered the home.
"We are securing the site," Thiesse said. "You can see where we had to break out the window."
Friday's tragedy will leave an impression for many years, Thiesse said.
"I have lived in Vermillion since 1989, and I worked for the City of Vermillion's police department the first 13 years. This is definitely the worst thing I have ever seen," he said.