FRIDLEY, Minn. — An aunt of the 6-year-old girl who died after a vehicle fire outside a Fridley Walmart this week defended the girl’s mother, Essie Mckenzie, at a news conference Thursday morning, Aug. 8.
“It could happen to anyone … it wasn’t her fault, things happen,” said Alexis Mckenzie, sister of Essie Mckenzie, whose 9-year-old daughter was also critically injured in the fire.
Alexis Mckenzie said the girls had been up since 4 a.m. Tuesday after Essie Mckenzie took her 11-year-old son and the children’s grandmother to the airport for a flight to Arizona. On the way home, Essie Mckenzie stopped at the Fridley Walmart to run an errand, and left her daughters sleeping in the car, believing they were old enough to be on their own.
“My sister is an awesome mom, the best one I know. … (The girls) would have gotten out of the car, but they was asleep and they burned,” Alexis Mckenzie said.
The 9-year-old girl, Taraji White, is still in critical condition, mostly due to injuries from smoke inhalation, said Fred Endorf, a surgeon at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. She also has burns on her face and arms that cover about 5% of her body.
She is currently sedated and on a ventilator while her lungs recover, Endorf said. Recovery could take days or weeks.
“She’s fighting still,” said Essie Mckenzie, who lives in Coon Rapids. “She’s fighting real hard.”
Taraji White also has asthma, which makes the smoke inhalation more worrisome, Alexis Mckenzie said.
Endorf said that 6-year-old Ty’rah White’s smoke inhalation injuries were worse than her sister’s.
“With Ty’rah, the smoke inhalation has extremely severe, one of the worst cases I’ve seen,” he said of the child, who died at HCMC on Tuesday night.
Burns also covered 60% of Ty’rah’s body.
“We obviously wish we could have done more for her, but unfortunately there are just some injuries that are so severe that they even exceed our capabilities,” Endorf said.
Roberto Lino Hipolito, the man charged with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of negligent fire, had his first court appearance Thursday in Anoka County District Court. Bail was set at $150,000 but could be lowered to $100,000 if Hipolito surrenders his passport.
According to the criminal complaint, the 70-year-old Long Beach, Calif., man and his wife had been camping in the Walmart parking lot at the time of the fire.
On Tuesday morning, authorities say, he placed a hot cook stove in the rear of his minivan and then parked it next to the van the girls were in. He had also placed blankets and pillows in the vehicle near the stove. Soon after, the van caught fire and the flames spread to two adjacent vehicles.
Hipolito’s next court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 5.
In a statement, Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said: “Our hearts are with the family of these children and to the child who remains in critical condition. While we cannot undo the carelessness that led to this tragedy, we can pursue justice and demand accountability.”
A GoFundMe account has been established to support the victims’ family.