Neighbors driven back from fatal Memphis blaze

Sunday, August 17, 2008

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Held back by flames and smoke, neighbors could do little to help as fire swept through a Memphis home Saturday, killing five young children and two adults.

"It was a horrible thing. You could hear them screaming, but there was nothing you could do," said Lorenzo Williams, who was seeing his wife off to work about 5:30 a.m. when they spotted the neighbor's house on fire.

Three youths, including two teenagers, managed to escape the flames that ravaged the two-story brick and wood-framed residence, leaving the bottom floor piled with large burned chucks of roof and ceiling.

The survivors were hospitalized in noncritical condition with burns on their faces and hands, said fire department Lt. Keith Staples.

Next-door neighbor Lamar Boyce said he woke up to the victims' cries and saw two of the survivors jump from a second-story window of the burning residence.

Boyce said the house was engulfed in flames and windows were popping out from the heat when he and girlfriend Nikko Moore rushed from their residence to try to help.

"She tried to put the water hose on it to do what we could do, but by that time it was too late," Boyce said. "It was too much fire. The water hose wouldn't do nothing."

The blaze burned so hot, Moore said, she had to back away and worried that her own residence might be in danger of catching fire.

"It was burning like paper," she said. "It burned so quick, and there was so much fire."

Most of the victims, Staples said, were found in the same part of the house, on the first floor at the rear of the residence. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Authorities withheld the names and ages of the dead pending a medical examiner's review. Relatives, including the twin sister of the woman who died, gathered on a sidewalk near the charred remains of the house, hugging and sobbing.

They identified the primary adult in the residence as Melissa Poole, 38, and said she and four of her children, including an 18-year-old son, died in the fire. A niece and nephew who were visiting when the fire broke out also died, family members said.

Alicia Bradley, 31, who identified herself as Poole's cousin, said the dead children were three girls, ages 9, 7 and 4 and two boys, ages 1 and 5.

"She was a good mom," Bradley said of Poole, a single mother. "She was just a caring type person."

The Memphis area has had several fatal fires over the past year. On New Year's Eve, two young boys died in a house fire while police said their mother was out celebrating.

In October one child died and more than two dozen people were left homeless when fires destroyed an apartment building. In April 2007, another apartment building fire killed an adult male and three children, all from Liberia.

Tennessee has a high rate of fire deaths, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

A report by the federal agency based on the latest statistics, from 2005, showed the national average was 12.3 deaths per million people while Tennessee's rate was 27.7, the fifth highest. The District of Columbia had the worst death rate.

The fire administration says climate, poverty, education and demographics are factors in fire fatality rates.

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