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Unsafe neighborhood: Mom, 2 kids, die in Decatur Street fire within days of slayings; dangers of security measures exposed

Burglar bars with a dead bolt lock blocked the front door of the home at 3221 Decatur St. where a mother and her two daughters died in a fire early Tuesday.

Those bars are a choice homeowners make between security and safety. They can delay firefighters getting inside a burning house by 90 seconds, said Fire Marshal Ricky Shores.

“It does slow us down,” he said. “That minute could make a difference in saving a life. Sometimes security and fire safety bump heads.”

Such a door can also be a deadly barrier if those in the home can’t find the key to unlock it from the inside.

Authorities say the deceased -- Nordalie Douglas, 32, and her daughters, 10-year-old fifth-grader Zakoya Bankston and 6-year-old first-grader Mackayla Gulley, both students at Brewer Elementary School -- had been in the house about a year. They came from North Carolina to live in a neighborhood that’s seen three homicides in the past week and a half.

Geraldine Sherald, who rented the house to Nordalie Douglas, said Douglas moved to Columbus to be near Zakoya’s father, who was at Fort Benning at the time.

Douglas stayed in Columbus after the father left Fort Benning because “she felt like Columbus was a good place for her.” Sherald said.

“She loved to be around the military,” said Novelyn Douglas, one of Nordalie’s sisters, of Greenville, N.C. “She loved to do clerical stuff, because that’s what she did in the military.”

Douglas served in the military about eight years, Novelyn Douglas said.

The Douglas family is from Jamaica. Nordalie moved to the United States in 1993 and her younger sister followed in 2003. Nordalie Douglas didn’t yet have a job in the Columbus area, but she volunteered with the Army and recently had a job interview.

Sherald said Douglas was studying business administration at Columbus State University.

“I just want people to know that her greatest concern was her children and their well-being,” Sherald said of Douglas. “It’s a tragedy and a nightmare.”

Nordalie Douglas went to Greenville with her daughters for the summer. Mackayla had a birthday June 8, and they spent the day bowling and skating.

“We did as much as we could here,” Novelyn Douglas said.

Nordalie Douglas and her children returned to their Decatur Street home about two weeks ago in preparation for the school year, which began last week.

Damion Scott lives on 33rd Avenue, just a few doors from the burned home. He’s watched the neighborhood change in the decades since he visited his grandfather there as a child.

“It used to be you didn’t have to worry about gunshots,” Scott said. “Now, it’s routine to hear gunfire.”

“Every time you turn on the news in Columbus, someone’s getting shot,” Scott added, pausing as he heard something in the background Tuesday morning. “There’s gunshots right now. It’s normal.”

Crime in the neighborhood

Police say 30-year-old DeWayne Montrell Williams shot his friend, Keyonna Monte Chapple, in the head as the men walked along Fisk Avenue early in the morning of Aug. 8. Williams turned himself in to authorities later that day when he heard Chapple had died.

Last Friday, 36-year-old Harold Tynes was shot a number of times at a Decatur Court apartment -- a short walk to both Fisk Avenue and Douglas’ home. No arrests have been made in that homicide.

Late Friday, 65-year-old Edgar Taylor allegedly shot Elijah Huff, 48, at Taylor’s Sampson Avenue apartment. Sampson Avenue is less than a mile from Decatur Street.

Tonneshia Hughes, Chapple’s sister, lives in the same neighborhood on Ninth Street. Having recently returned to the area, Hughes said she doesn’t let her children outside to play.

“When they told me about my brother, it just kind of knocked the wind out of me,” Hughes said. “He didn’t bother nobody.”

Hughes said she considers her neighborhood dangerous. She doesn’t go outside at night without someone with her.

Though Scott said he’s seen drug use become prevalent in the area and gunshots grow commonplace, he doesn’t think his neighborhood is dangerous.

Scott’s house has burglar bars, as do many nearby houses. Douglas’ home has a bar on the front door that requires key access on both sides -- a style that isn’t allowed in new construction. However, that type of burglar bar is permitted in older homes, Shores said.

Shores advises against having a burglar bar that requires a key on both sides. He suggests that the side facing indoors should have a thumb latch.

“If you can’t get out, they will certainly trap you,” he said. “If you’re in a smoke-filled environment, you’ve only got a few minutes to get out. You simply do not have time to look for a key.”

Shores declined to say whether Douglas’ burglar bar had the key in the lock, citing the ongoing investigation.

The fire

Columbus Fire & EMS received the call about the fire at 12:35 a.m.

Scott arrived home from work around that time and saw his uncle on the front porch of his house calling 911.

Scott’s uncle told him the Decatur Street home was on fire, and Scott ran to the house and started knocking on the door.

“I’m trying to get someone to come to the door,” Scott said. “No one would come to the door. The whole house was just filled with smoke. Smoke was coming out all the vents. That smoke got to me.”

Scott ran to the side and back of the home, trying to get someone’s attention. He knew someone must be inside because a blue minivan was parked under the carport, but he couldn’t get anyone to answer his calls.

By the time Scott returned to the front of the house, he saw the flames coming through the roof of the one-story brick home.

Firefighters arrived moments later. They broke inside the house and pulled the three unconscious people out, Shores said.

Scott saw one firefighter run from the house with the younger girl in his arms. He went to a waiting ambulance.

Then another firefighter ran from the home with the older girl.

“He was running across the yard and he fell as he came across the yard,” Scott said. “I went over and helped him up. I moved out of the way. He brought her over to the ambulance.”

“It was rough,” Scott said. “I can still see it.”

The ambulance left for the hospital. By then, the mother was receiving CPR in the front yard, Scott said.

All three died Tuesday morning. Their bodies have been sent to Atlanta for autopsies, Deputy Coroner Freeman Worley said.

Shores said the fire was mainly in the home’s attic, though some flames were inside the home. It took firefighters about 10 minutes to control the blaze.

“It suffered significant fire damage,” he added. “The roof is still up, the walls are still standing but the attic suffered serious damage.”

Yellow caution tape stretched across the front of the home on Tuesday morning. Windows were boarded up and trash and mattresses were in the front yard.

The blue minivan, its front facing toward the street, still sat under the carport.

Tuesday morning, a car revving its motor grew louder as it approached Douglas’ home. It sped past the yellow caution tape, turned the corner and disappeared.

The traffic, which Scott said has no regard for residents, is another issue with the neighborhood.

“I sit up here and I watch TV,” Scott said. “I don’t think about it anymore.”

Staff photographer Robin Trimarchi contributed to this report.

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