Fire gutted an apartment in a rundown complex Monday, killing three women and six children, including several family members taken in because they had nowhere else to go, officials and neighbors said.
The West Memorial Funeral Home identified the victims as India Williams, 25, and her three children, along with Williams's cousin, Castella "Maria" Bell, 18, and her three children. The ninth victim was 20-year-old Lakesha Gillespie, identified by the funeral home as a friend. The children were ages 6 months to 6 years.
Latasha Brown, who lives downstairs, said she never heard smoke detectors, but a neighbor banged on her door around 4 a.m. to tell her to get out. She grabbed her 3-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter and ran barefoot into the cold.
"It was horrifying," said Brown, 28. "I've never seen anything like it in my life."
Investigators did not know what caused the blaze, though they did not suspect it was set. Several neighbors said the apartments in the Academy Crossing complex had electrical problems, though complex owner Mildred Rollins said she was not aware of any such problems. She would not comment further.
Neighbors said Williams, who worked at a Popeyes fast food restaurant, took in Bell and her children recently because they had fallen on hard times. They said Williams and Gillespie were a couple.
"They were the kindest people who would not turn away a friend, especially when she had kids," Brown said.
Fire Chief Rodger Mann said investigators have no evidence to suggest someone set the blaze.
"A fire investigation is like a puzzle," he said. "We've got to get enough pieces of the puzzle to get a picture of what happened."
Autopsies were ordered on the bodies of the three women, authorities said, and may also be ordered on the children depending on the results.
Ramona Doss, who lives across the parking lot in another of the complex's six two-story red brick apartment buildings, said Williams would often bring her plates of home-cooked food, and Williams's children called her "Grandma" even though they are not related.
"Those babies just had Christmas," Doss said. "They used to say 'Grandma, you got any more candy?' I'll never hear that from them again."
Academy Crossing is in Starkville, a city of about 24,000 full-time residents in eastern Mississippi that is also home to Mississippi State University.
Firefighters worked well into the afternoon, shoveling piles of burned debris over a railing from the second floor apartment onto the parking lot below. Workers later boarded up the broken windows and burnt-out doors. Empty beer cans and soda bottles were strewn in front of one apartment, while two tires sat in front of another and a window was broken in a third.
Mann said a private company recently inspected the complex and found no problems.
Kiara Williams, 19, who lives in an adjacent building and is not related to India Williams, said she woke up to see flames pouring from the apartment and called Gillespie's cell phone. There was no answer.
"I was just over there last night," she said, shaking her head as she stared at the gutted apartment. "She was like a sister to me."
She said the women were friendly people who could often be seen around the complex playing with the children.
Doss was still shaken Monday as she recalled opening her door to see flames across the way.
"The glass just blew and made a sound like a bomb," Doss said. "It's a tragedy in Academy Crossing."
The children killed were identified as Kamarion Williams, 2, Jacorian Vasser, 6, Richard Vasser, 5, Ta'Nayia Bell, 4, Jayvion Bell, 3, and Sumaya Bell, 6 months.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.