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Mom remembers daughter who died in van fire

MINNEAPOLIS – The pain is making time crawl for Essie Mckenzie, as she tries to come to grips with the unthinkable.

“9:37 p.m. will make it two full days I couldn’t hold and see my baby anymore,” Mckenzie said with resignation.

Her baby, 6-year-old Ty’rah White, died Wednesday of injuries suffered when a van caught fire in a Fridley Walmart parking lot, then jumped to Mckenzie’s van with her two daughters sleeping inside. Ty’rah and her 9-year-old sister Taraji were burned and suffered smoke inhalation. Taraji remains at Hennepin County Medical Center in critical condition.

“My daughter Taraji, she’s fighting still,” Mckenzie insisted. “She’s fighting real hard.”

Mckenzie agreed to speak with reporters about the loss of her daughter, and how she will attempt to move on. She had gone shopping at Walmart before 7 a.m. Tuesday and chose to leave the girls in the car to rest, as they had awakened at 4 a.m. to drop Mckenzie’s son and mother at the airport. Police say the owner of a van parked next to the vehicle with the girls inside, 70-year-old Robert Lino Hipolito, had been cooking something on a portable stove in the parking lot and apparently put the stove in the back of his van before it cooled sufficiently.

Hipolito’s van started on fire, and the flames soon jumped to the Dodge Caravan the girls were sleeping in. They were unable to escape before being badly burned. Hipolito has been charged with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of negligent fire. He made his first appearance in Anoka County Court Thursday.

Essie Mckenzie herself has been harshly judged by some in the court of public opinion, for leaving her children alone in the van while she shopped. Social media has been filled with posts from people shaming Mckenzie, even blaming her for Ty’rah’s death. Her sister Alexis Mckenzie is having none of it.

“I know that there’s a lot of people that are being negative towards my sister, like ‘why would she leave the kids in the car?’ and that type of stuff,” Alexis Mckenzie vented. “But at the end of the day, she’s a single mother who is raising three kids by herself with no help. None at all.”

“It could happen to anybody. That could have been anybody,” McKenzie continued. “They wasn’t babies in that car. It was big kids. Cause if they was alive and if they had seen what was going on, I bet my last daughter the girls would have got out of the car on their own.”

“What ever anyone’s doing and saying, I don’t have enough energy for that,” Essie McKenzie added wearily.

In describing Ty’rah, McKenzie described her 6-year-old as a bright child who loved to dance and be noticed, her best friend. When asked what people could do, she didn’t have many words.

“Just pray. That’s it.”

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the family in the aftermath of Ty’rah’s death.

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