HOUSTON (AP) — A state agency was investigating Friday whether a woman left seven preschoolers alone in her home day care center before a fire broke out, killing three of the youngsters and injuring the others.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which licenses day care centers, is investigating other possible violations as well, including whether the number of children in the home exceeded the state limit, spokeswoman Gwen Carter said. State regulations allow no more than six children under preschool age — generally considered 5 years or younger — to be cared for in any 24-hour period in registered child-care homes, Carter said.
Geoffrey Deshano, 18, who lives near the day care, said he and a friend saw the day care's operator Jessica Tata, 22, arrive at her one-story home in a minivan Thursday and then run out, screaming for help, about 10 to 20 minutes later. Deshano and John Chestnut said they were standing outside and did not see Tata take any children from the vehicle before going inside the house.
Deshano said he heard Tata scream, ran toward the house and saw some grocery bags at the front door. He said he saw a little boy inside and broke a window but couldn't pull the child out because smoke quickly filled his eyes and throat.
Deshano said he didn't know Tata and had no idea she was operating a day care. He said he and Chestnut talked to fire investigators, who said Friday they still had not talked to Tata.
Carter said her department was working with other agencies investigating the fire but declined to discuss details.
Tata received a license for the home day care March 1 and no one else worked there, Carter said. No problems had been reported since the day care was licensed, but it was cited before it opened for not having a fire extinguisher or carbon monoxide detector. Records show the deficiency was corrected, and Carter said staff members saw the fire extinguisher last year before the license was granted.
Kenya Stradford's 20-month-old daughter, Kendyll, died in the fire on only the child's second day at the center. Stradford went to the house Friday afternoon and sobbed as she stood at the front door.
"I just wanted to see how bad it was," the mother said. She said she was devastated after losing the sweet toddler who made her laugh.
Stradford, who lives in Katy, said a relative had seen Tata's minivan with a sign advertising the center, so she went to the house earlier this week and decided to enroll Kendyll there. She said Tata was open and "seemed like she knew what she was doing."
Stradford said if she could talk to Tata, she would ask her to "please just tell me what happened. I just need to know what happened."
Emmanuel Kajoh of Cypress, whose daughter Elizabeth died in the fire, told The Associated Press that she had been staying at the day care weekdays since last summer. He said Tata had worked in their church day care, and his wife got to know her when she would drop off Elizabeth before church services.
"She was passionate about children. She would take care of them like they were her own," Kajoh said, adding that he and his wife held Elizabeth's first birthday party at Tata's house last year because the baby was happy with her friends and Tata, who he said was "like family."
On Thursday morning, 20-month-old Elizabeth toddled toward the door while holding Tata's hand, then waved and smiled as Kajoh's wife drove away, he said. Hours later, Tata called crying, "telling my wife that she should come over. There was an accident and children were dying."
He said he and his wife were still trying to decide how to share the bad news with their 5-year-old daughter, who has been staying with a friend and didn't attend the day care because she's in school.
Kajoh said he's not angry but did wonder if Tata left the children alone.
"I don't want to think about that right now," he said. "I'm anguished."
The third victim's identity has not been released.
Neighbors said Tata rented the house, where a broken window, hole in the roof and some charred furniture visible through the open front door were the only signs of the tragedy Friday. Cindy Flores, a former neighbor, placed purple balloons by the fence, saying she went to the house because "my heart was overcome with grief."
Two of the children who survived remained in critical but stable condition Friday at Shriners Children's Hospital in Galveston, being treated for burns, said hospital spokeswoman Jo Anne Zuniga. Two others were in Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, one in critical and the other in good condition, said spokeswoman Jennifer Hart.
Tata was treated and released from the hospital. Attempts to contact her in person or by phone at multiple addresses and telephone listings were unsuccessful Friday.
Brown contributed from Fort Worth. Associated Press writers Schuyler Dixon and Danny Robbins in Dallas also contributed to this report.