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It could be weeks before authorities nail down the exact cause of the Feb. 8 fire that killed four members of a Hamburg family.

"We know the oxygen was involved in the acceleration of the fire," Hamburg police Detective Glenn Zawierucha said. "We just don't know to what extent."

Waun Carney, 43, and three of her children, James Jr., 3; Diane, 14; and Patricia, 16, died of smoke inhalation.

A 70-pound liquid oxygen reservoir provided a constant flow of oxygen to James Jr.'s crib, which was located on the first floor of the Niles Avenue home, police said. The boy had medical problems that required the oxygen. The crib was 10 to 12 feet away from a gravity-fed gas furnace.

The fire began on the first floor, and James Carney ran outside with curtains that had ignited. Flames spread rapidly, and he was unable to get back into the home to rescue his wife and children. Mrs. Carney was able to save their 18-year-old daughter, Theresa, by pushing her out of a second-story window.

Zawierucha said police have contacted a number of experts about how the liquid oxygen cylinders operate and even have a query into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for more information on how oxygen might act in such a situation.

The cause of the fire remains listed as accidental, but Zawierucha said investigators have not yet determined if there was a mechanical malfunction or human error involved. He said authorities will do "whatever we can do that is humanly possible" to determine the cause.

"It could be weeks before we do," he said.

Meanwhile, donations to various funds set up for the family have topped $20,000. Donations to the Orchard Park Middle School/Carney Fund can be sent to the school at 60 S. Lincoln Ave., Orchard Park, N.Y. 14127.

The fire carried the worst human toll in memory in Hamburg. Some of the police and firefighters who answered the call also recalled responding to the February 1988 arson that killed a mother and two children. That case was a homicide, and Charles Mixon is serving a life term for the murders.

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