January 13, 1997|By Rick Badie of The Orlando Sentinel Staff
DUNNELLON — Relatives of a mother and two children who died in an unexplained house fire visited the remains of the home Sunday, hoping to salvage keepsakes of the family that perished there.
They watched as investigators sifted and bulldozed blackened rubbish in a search to pinpoint the cause of a fire that started about 4:30 a.m. Saturday in remote southwest Marion County.
Killed were Cindy Taylor, 39, and her two children, Stephen Shonk, 3, and Jessica Barnett, 11. They appeared to have died in their sleep, victims of a fire that took four hours to extinguish.
Early news reports pinned the cause of the fire on space heaters. Taylor kept five of them throughout the four-bedroom block residence, which lacked central heat and air.
But John P. Corbett, a state fire investigator, said Sunday that the cause of the fire had not been determined.
"If there's a space heater in a house, people always want to say that's what started the fire, " he said. 'That's not always true.
"She had space heaters, but I understand she was very meticulous with them. The family has been through enough, so we want to be 100 percent certain before we say anything."
As Corbett and two other investigators worked Sunday, some family members came to observe. They left with a few pictures, which they placed in a bucket, and a mostly white teddy bear that, Trish Keesler, Taylor's niece, carried by hand.
Harold Erb, Taylor's brother who lives in Orlando, was at the site with his wife, Joyce. Together they solemnly sifted through a charred photo album that Corbett and two other investigators uncovered in the rubbish.
Joyce Erb called Taylor a hard worker who, with Taylor's sister, Ann Keesler, ran a cleaning service. Contracts with retirement homes and businesses kept Taylor and Keesler busy, even on weekends, she said.
"We didn't see each other much because they were busy with their business, and we were busy with ours," Joyce Erb said with tears in her eyes.
The last big family affair took place at Thanksgiving. Taylor and her children, the Keeslers and the Erbs spent the holiday in Daytona Beach.
"That was the first time we had ever done something like that - got together and went away," said Joyce Erb, who with Harold owns E&H Car Crushing Co. Inc. in Orlando.
Whenever the families did gather, Joyce Erb said one thing was constant: nonstop chatter from little Stephen. 3.
"He'd talk a mile a minute, nonstop," Erb said, smiling. "He'd tell us everything that was going on."
Jessica was a precocious young lady who enjoyed sports. "She was brilliant," Joyce Erb said. "She was only 11, but you would have thought she was older."
Despite working long hours, Joyce Erb said it was obvious Taylor was close to the children.
"The way they acted and everything, you could tell that time had been spent with them," she said.
After firefighters stamped out the blaze Saturday, family members had to play a waiting game.
Initially, firefighters couldn't find any bodies, so there was hope that maybe the family had not been home.
About noon, though, relatives and friends who had gathered at Ann Keesler's house learned all three had perished.
Amid the rubbish of the house were signs that children once lived there: a portable basketball hoop, its plastic backboard partially melted; a swing set; and a toy car.
Jessica Barnett (1985 - 1997)*
Stephen Shonk (1993 - 1997)*
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