HOUSTON (AP) — A kitchen fire filled a home daycare center with smoke on Thursday, killing three children and injuring four others. Firefighters ran with babies and small children in their arms to nearby ambulances on the crowded street, a fire official said.
All seven children in Jackie's Child Care were taken to hospitals, said Rick Flanagan, Houston Fire Department's executive assistant chief. They ranged in age from 18 months to 3 years old, officials said.
Neighbor Michael 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.
"They were ash-colored," McAndrews said. "They weren't coughing. They weren't breathing."
Flanagan said no information was immediately available on the names and ages of those who died. The four injured "are apparently still clinging to life . . . 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 had also 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.
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, Houston spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. 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.
Firefighters arrived at the one-story home to find it 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.
But 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.
The daycare center was licensed to Jessica Tata, 22. She did not respond to a message left by The Associated Press.
McAndrews said Tata was standing in the street and shouting as firefighters put out the blaze and tried to rescue the children.
Authorities were investigating the cause of the blaze. McAndrews said Tata said she told firefighters that the fire started in the kitchen, while she was in the bathroom.
"She was crying, frantic, saying all kinds of stuff," said McAndrews, 50, who lives on the same block as the daycare center. "She was saying things to anyone who would listen."
McAndrews said firefighters calmed her down, got her on a stretcher, put her into an ambulance and left the scene.
The residence was licensed last March 1 as a registered child-care home, according to Texas Department of Family and Protective Services records.
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.
Jennifer Williams, 31, who lives across the street from McAndrews, was getting ready to pick up her daughter from school when she saw the emergency vehicles converging and saw a woman running toward the house. She said she couldn't remember ever seeing children playing in the yard around the house in the year she's lived in the neighborhood.
Vera Thompkins, 59, arrived at the scene early Thursday evening, hoping to talk to Tata. Thompkins said Tata was a regular church-goer and devoted to caring for children.
"I can't say anything ill about Jessica," Thompkins said. "She was a good candidate for the children, to interact with them. What has happened here, I can't explain it."
Cindy Poursartip, another neighbor, later placed a cluster of pink balloons at the foot of the wooden fence on the side of the house.
"It's an unbelievable nightmare," she said. "I can't believe you would drop them off in the morning, and expect to pick them up and you don't see them again. It has to be unbearable."
Associated Press writers Juan A. Lozano in Houston and Danny Robbins, Linda Stewart Ball and Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report.