MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Memphis Fire Department said three adults and six children died in an early morning house fire caused by a malfunction in the power cord of their air conditioner.
Emergency crews rushed to the scene on Severson Avenue near James Street just before 1:30 a.m. Monday, when someone inside the home called 911 from a cell phone.
MFD later determined the fire started in the living room. Fire investigators determined a malfunction in the A/C unit's power cord sparked the fire.
Investigators said the family was unable to get out of the home. The house had a security door and bars on the windows; the family was unable to open the security devices in time to escape.
Family members identified the adults who died in the fire as Carol Collier, Eloise Futrell, and LaKisha Ward. Six children between the ages of 3 and 16 also died in the fire; one child, identified as Cameron, is in the hospital in extremely critical condition.
"He's fighting so hard. I went in to see him and I touched his hand," Veronica Trammell, whose daughter and grandson were killed in the fire, said. "They have him sedated and he can't move."
Cameron previously played football for the Memphis Raider organization. That group released the following statement after learning the news:
"Everyone is upstairs praying that Cameron pulls through," aunt Aja Gillespie said.
Gillespie has been by Cameron's side all day at the hospital.
"As of right now, he's on life support and he's not doing anything on his own right now," Gillespie said.
Firefighters arrived at the home less than four minutes after receiving the call. They said they only saw light smoke inside the home. It then took 15 minutes for fire crews to put out the fire and pull the family of 10 out of the home.
The fire only burned 25 percent of the home, but the smoke filled the entire building. MFD said most of the fatalities were caused by smoke inhalation.
Seven of the 10 family members died in the fire. The three remaining children were immediately taken to Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. Two of those children later died.
"They was some loving kids, man," family friend Frederick Terrell said. "They [are] in a better place now, you know? They have no worries."
Terrell said the children's father is like a brother to him. He said the kids were like his nieces and nephews. He's still in shock that they're gone.
Two of the victims attended Cummings Elementary School. Students and faculty there spent the day coping with the tragic loss of Alonzo Ward, 6, and Diamond Jett, 7.
The principal released the following statement to parents:
Memphis Fire Department Director Gina Sweat said this fire is one of the most devastating in the department's history.
"This is the most tragic fire incident in Memphis since the 1920s," Sweat said.
Sweat said tragedies like these leave a powerful and strong reminder.
"It is times like these we are reminded how precious, important, and short our lives can be," Sweat said.
She said the impact the incident had on the firefighters was obvious.
"It was kind of a quiet calm among the firefighters. You could feel their pain," Sweat said. "Nothing in our training can truly prepare us for this heartbreaking event."
"In my 27 years with the Memphis Fire Department, I have never seen this amount of victims on one incident," MFD spokesman Lt. Wayne Cooke said. "We sincerely pray for this family and for the loved ones of this family."
Cooke added that firefighters will receive counseling after this incident.
"We do provide our firefighters with critical stress debriefing," Cooke said. "All those who responded to the scene, along with some of our emergency dispatch operators, will receive that assistance."
Firefighters said they found a smoke detector, but it was too damaged to tell if it was working.
Cooke said that smoke detectors are available for free at the Fire Museum of Memphis.
Over the next few days, MFD will be doing a smoke detector blitz to put working smoke detectors in homes around Memphis.
Cooke also recommended that all family members have an escape plan for every room of the house.
"Know how to get out of every room in your home at least two ways," Cooke said.
Mayor Jim Strickland was visibly moved by the tragedy.
"Our whole city is in mourning for the loss of much of one family," Strickland said.
Now, a city is left heartbroken and touched by such a horrible tragedy--and praying for a devastated family.
"We ask God to comfort them during this extremely difficult time," Sweat said.
The tragedy and heartbroken city reached all the way to Nashville and capital hill, where the Tennessee House of Representatives paused during their session for a moment of silence and prayer for the victims and those touched by the tragedy.
It's the hardest day this family has ever faced. A father, who lost six of his children, survived the devastating house fire because he was not home when the fire started. But, his girlfriend Lakeisha Ward was in the home and died in the fire.
"I know she was fighting to save those children," Ward's mother said.
Ward's mother lost her daughter and grandson, Alonzo, in the house fire. She said her daughter had only one child, but she loved all of the children as if they were her own.
"It didn't matter. She would go and get the kids even if it was just her without the dad," Ward's mother said. "She took it upon herself to take the kids in."
Other relatives and cousins on the scene of the fire couldn't find the words to explain the pain.
"It's hard to describe. You can never describe something of this magnitude," cousin Jerry Brack said. "The devastation is unbelievable."
Brack said he prefers to remember his loved ones as they were, and not how they died.
"I prefer to remember some of the fun times that we had in the house," Brack said. "But, to look at it now, it pains me to look at the house, to actually have to think about and relive everything I've seen up until this point."
Brack said he is relying on his faith during these difficult times.
"I trust God and in God all things are possible. So, I know that we'll get through this," he said.
But, he knows getting through this will take a long time.
"It is something we'll have to live with for the rest of our lives," Brack said.
The community outpouring of support and love in South Memphis was tremendous as people from all over the city drove by or walked up to express their condolences. It was difficult for many family members to process the reality of what had happened.
"I can't even explain it. The way I feel losing all of my babies like that," grandfather Ernest Jett said. "They were the best. They were drop dead gorgeous."
"It just hurt so bad I can't believe it," Veronica Trammell, who lost a daughter and a grandson in the fire, said. "They days coming ahead is going to be real hard."
"When I got the call this morning I was really shocked. I didn't know what to do," cousin Reginae Bonner said.
All of the children killed in the fire were siblings. One of their cousins didn't want to be identified, but did her best to describe the personalities of the children.
"They were really sweet. They were respectful and they were good kids," the cousin said.
The children were always seen around the community together; tragically, friends and family noted that they died together Monday morning.
"It's just a bad pill to swallow," Jett said. "I can't even explain it."
The family issued a statement thanking the community for its support and announcing that an account has been established for the family.
According to family members, it was 53-year-old Carol Collier who dialed 911 from inside the burning home. Collier was a family friend.
Now, her family is left mourning with the family who lost so many loved ones in this tragic fire.
"She came banging on my window and said 'Momma dead'," Kendric Johnson said.
Johnson said she didn't believe what she was being told for one big reason.
"Because my momma can't be dead. That's the strongest woman I know," Johnson said.
Sadly, the news was true. Johnson soon learned he was going to have to be the strong one.
Collier, the mother of one child, Kendric Johnson, and a grandson, was the glue that held the family together.
"She was the one that got us all together," niece Sherry Bass said.
Bass said Collier would do whatever it took to make sure the whole family got together and did things as a family.
Her family said she worked as a caregiver her entire life. She was a caregiver for the now deceased grandmother who owned the house. It's a house where Collier's family said she actually lived so she could be near her own mother, who lives two doors away.
Collier's family believes she tried to escape the burning house through the bedroom where she slept because you can see the broken glass behind the bars.
"She tried to come up out of the house."
Family, friends, and community members gathered outside the home Monday night for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the fire, and pray for Cameron's recovery.
They prayed, held candles, and grieved.
They gathered at the same place where the family members lost their lives, and where many brought teddy bears and balloons throughout the day.
"It's terrible. It's a harsh feeling," Jett said.
Jett said they were also praying that young Cameron survives.
"We are all in prayer and it's in God's hands," he said.
Family members said they are trying to be strong during this very difficult time.
"Walking by faith, that's all I can say," aunt Delores Devres said.