HOUSTON— A source in the Houston Fire Department told 11 News they are looking into the possibility that day care operator Jessica Tata was not home when the fire started. Three children were killed and four were hurt in Thursday's blaze.
Neighbors are telling arson investigators they saw Tata drive up to the day care around 2 p.m. They said she opened the door to the house and smoke poured out, according to our 11 News source. The neighbors also said they saw groceries on the lawn and inside the van.
A source with the Houston Police Department told 11 News they have surveillance video of Tata at a nearby grocery store around the time the fire broke out.
Neighbors say an older woman may have been at the day care while Tata was away, but that's not confirmed either.
On the record, HFD Assistant Capt. Lisa Campbell would only say that it's an "active investigation" and they aren't going to comment on details.
Campbell said they have not spoken with Tata yet because she was hospitalized for unknown reasons hours after the fire.
A neighbor said Tata 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 inside.
Harris County authorities have identified two of the dead children as Elizabeth Kajoh and Kendyll Stradford, both 20 months old. The third victim was identified Friday evening as 3-year-old Shomari Dickerson. The names of the four children who remain hospitalized haven’t been released.
Elizabeth's mother, Betty Ukara, spoke with 11 News about Tata, the young woman she entrusted with the care of her baby daughter.
"I’m very sad that this is happening to her," Ukara said. "She’s the kind of person that cares about the child, the development of the child."
Ukara said she will forgive Tata because it's the only way she will be able to heal.
"I’m not upset. I’m very anguished so I have mixed feelings," Ukara said. "Anger is not one of them."
Kenya Stradford, Kendyll's mother, went to the scene of the fire Friday searching for answers. Her family had recently seen the signs on the minivan for Jackie's daycare and decided this was the place for their baby.
"I just need to know what happened," she said. "I can’t imagine why you would leave all these kids in the house by themselves for any reason at all."
Stradford said Tata gave her the assurance of good care.
"She said that I could trust her, that was the last thing that she said to me before I dropped Kendyll off," Stradford said. "She let those babies burn, who does that?"
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."