published Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Child killed in East Chattanooga blaze

Emergency personnel work the scene of a fatal fire that occurred April 1, 2013, on the 2000 block of Rawlings Street in East Chattanooga.
Emergency personnel work the scene of a fatal fire that occurred April 1, 2013, on the 2000 block of Rawlings Street in East Chattanooga.
Photo by Dan Henry.

The smell of smoke still lingered around Rawlings Street hours after the flames had been quenched and the firetrucks had left the scene.

Charred logs and debris littered the front yard after the devastating house fire that claimed the life of one child and left the mother and a second child badly burned.

The fire broke out about 9:30 a.m. Monday at 2014 Rawlings St. and Kristie Tyler, who lives just two houses away, said neighbors were quick to help.

"We knew the babies were inside," Tyler said. "Some men, including my uncle, did everything they could to get them out, but the fire was just too hot."

Jumoke Johnson Jr., 19, was staying at a friend's house nearby when he said a woman banged on the door and asked for help. Johnson ran to the house where he watched the children's mother collapse to the ground.

"I knew she was in shock when she fell out," he said. "I knew she was scared."

The woman, who has been identified by police as Shondell Jackson, told Johnson her two children were inside.

He said he was with a police officer when he tried to get through the back door and could see a child inside.

Police arrived just after 9:49 a.m. as billowing black smoke curled skyward.

Eyewitnesses told police there were possibly children inside the home, but police were unable to get inside either, forced back by heat so intense it melted the front of an SUV parked just yards from the home.

Security bars on the residence prevented police and firefighters from getting inside the home quickly. Firefighters managed to squeeze through some damaged bars to get in.

Chattanooga Fire Capt. Dean Rogers removed one child after making his way around the inside of the home, where there was zero visibility. Both children were found on the floor, said Bruce Garner, public information officer for the Chattanooga Fire Department.

The children were about 2 to 3 years old, Garner said. One child was pronounced dead on the scene.

The second child, who suffered from smoke inhalation and burns, was taken to Children's Hospital at Erlanger and then airlifted by helicopter to Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga.

The identities of the children have not been announced.

Police said in a release today that the mother, who was treated for reported burns on her hands, is now with her son at the Augusta burn center.

An hour after firefighters extinguished the flames, Johnson stood nearby, the structure still smoldering.

He said both children appeared unresponsive when a firefighter carried them out.

The mother tried to rescue her children and was unable to reach them, Garner said. It's unclear if she was inside the residence when the fire started. She was outside the residence when firefighters arrived.

Skip Everhardt, who lives next door to the house where Johnson was staying and was among the first to try to enter the burning home, said he was deeply impressed by Johnson's bravery and that of the young man he was staying with.

"That was the most courageous thing I've ever seen," he said.

Everhardt said Johnson kept going back, trying to get inside to the children, but he couldn't get through the heavy smoke and intense heat.

"If we [were] going to take our hats off to anybody, it'd be them," he said.

Chattanooga Fire Department firefighters are still investigating what caused the fire.

Firefighters on the scene told Garner they didn't see any smoke alarms or hear any going off.

Everhardt said it looked as if the fire was mainly in the ceiling and roof, but details on where the fire started and what caused it are unclear.

The Chattanooga Police major crimes unit is investigating because there is a fatality involved.

This is the second fire fatality of the year. Last week, 95-year-old Z.M. Tussey died from smoke inhalation at a fire at 3226 Van Buren St.

Staff writer Lindsay Burkholder contributed to this story. Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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