HOUSTON -- From the outside, only a hole hacked in the roof offers any sign that a home day care center had been filled with so much smoke from a kitchen fire that firefighters needed thermal imaging equipment to locate some of the victims. The fire killed three children and sent four others to hospitals.
Investigators will be seeking answers Friday about what sparked the fire a day earlier at Jackie’s Child Care, and looking for any indication that the fire need not have happened. A neighbor said day care operator Jessica Tata said she told firefighters that the fire started in the kitchen, while she was in the bathroom.
Seven children, ranging in age from 18 months to 3 years, were there. Houston Executive Assistant Fire Chief Rick Flanagan says three died, though officials could not immediately give their names or ages.
Of the injured, "I don’t think they’re out of the darkness yet," Flanagan said.
One was in critical condition and one was in good condition at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, said hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Hart. She said one child also had been transferred to Shriners Hospital burn center in Galveston in critical condition, and had no information on the other child.
Flanagan said two children had been transferred to the Galveston hospital, "and that shows you how bad their injuries were." A nurse at Shriners said they do not release information on patients.
The day care center was licensed to Tata, 22. She did not respond to a message left by The Associated Press. Neighbor Michael McAndrews said firefighters at the one-story home had gotten her on a stretcher, put her into an ambulance and left the scene after calming her down.
"She was crying, frantic, saying all kinds of stuff," said McAndrews, 50, who lives on the same block as the day care center. "She was saying things to anyone who would listen."
The residence was licensed last March 1 as a registered child-care home, according to Texas Department of Family and Protective Services records. State regulations allow no more than six children under preschool age to be cared for in any 24-hour period in registered child-care homes, said Gwen Carter, a spokeswoman for the department. Preschool age is generally defined as 5 or younger, she said.
Carter declined to comment when asked whether the Tata home was in compliance with that rule Thursday.
"Our investigation is just starting, and we have a lot of work to do," she said.
Before the home opened, it was cited for not having a fire extinguisher or carbon monoxide detector, but the deficiency was corrected last Feb. 24, the records show. Carter said staff members physically saw the fire extinguisher before the license was granted. No problems have been reported at the home since it was licensed, Carter said. Once licenses are granted, child-care facilities are inspected every two years unless there’s a complaint or particular concern, she said.
Carter said two department staff members were sent to the house when the fire broke out.
When firefighters arrived they found the home engulfed in smoke, with two injured children outside and five others trapped inside. The firefighters had to use thermal imaging cameras to locate some of the children, Flanagan said, and quickly started pulling them out one by one.
McAndrews said he saw "smoke billowing out of the house and firemen up on the roof, trying to make a hole." Around front, firefighters were carrying children out of the smoke-filled house, then performing CPR in the yard.
Because the neighborhood was accessible by only one street, firefighters at one point were running with babies and small children in their arms to the nearest ambulances on the crowded streets.
"They were ash-colored," McAndrews said. "They weren’t coughing. They weren’t breathing."
Tata was standing in the street and shouting as firefighters put out the blaze and tried to rescue the children, McAndrews said. Friend Vera Thompkins said she is devoted to caring for children.
"I can’t say anything ill about Jessica," said Thompkins, 59.
"She was a good candidate for the children, to interact with them.
What has happened here, I can’t explain it."