Assistant Cape May County Prosecutor H. Parker Smith said his office suspected that the fire in the tiny tan bungalow might have been deliberately set.
Investigators from the Lower Township Police Department and the Prosecutor's Office yesterday interviewed neighbors on Myrtle Avenue, where the family lived.
Authorities have talked to the children's father, Michael, who lives in another section of Lower Township. The Prosecutor's Office will question Bernadette Jordan when her physicians allow it.
Police and stunned neighbors said they knew little about what might have happened in the home Friday night. Police were awaiting toxicology reports of tissue samples taken from the children to determine the exact cause of the deaths, which have been ruled homicides.
Michael and Frances Jordan lacked enough carbon monoxide in their lungs to have been alive during the blaze, Smith said.
Police and neighbors said there had been trouble in the Jordan home long before the fire.
The Jordans were in a bitter divorce dispute. Both had been ordered by Cape May County Superior Court this year to undergo psychological evaluations, and the court had imposed supervised visitation rights for Michael Jordan after his wife complained to the court that he had abused the children, according to Judge Richard Williams, assignment judge for Atlantic and Cape May County Superior Courts.
The day before the fire, the court mailed a motion to Bernadette Jordan that her husband was seeking joint custody of Frances, a pudgy, dark-haired, first-grade student at St. Anne's Catholic School in Wildwood and Michael Jr., a curly-haired, blue-eyed toddler. The notice had a Sept. 20 court date.
Rebecca Simpson, a 75-year-old neighbor who often would baby-sit the children, said the notice had alarmed Jordan.
The morning of the fire, Jordan called Simpson and told her she had received a court notice that day. "She was very upset . . . distraught," Simpson said.
Jordan told her that her greatest fear was that her husband would gain custody of the children, Simpson said.
Williams said Bernadette and Michael Jordan had been involved in disputes about visitation rights almost from the beginning of their separation, which occurred in February.
According to court records, Bernadette Jordan filed a domestic violence complaint against her husband on April 7. She followed quickly with a legal request that she be awarded custody of the children. Two weeks later, Michael Jordan accused his wife in court papers of domestic violence.
Williams said Bernadette Jordan made various statements in court documents alleging child abuse by her husband.
On May 16, Michael Jordan filed for divorce. Because of the child-abuse accusations, he could only see his children under the supervision of his sister, Williams said.
Members of Michael Jordan's family would pick up the children on Mondays and Tuesdays, Simpson said, adding that Michael avoided contact with his estranged wife.
On Friday, after receiving the notice of the joint-custody petition, Bernadette Jordan packed the children's bags and called Simpson, telling her that Michael would pick up the children at 5 that afternoon in Simpson's driveway, directly across the street, Simpson said.
" 'I can't fight this thing anymore. I'll just have to wait until my hearing,' " Simpson said Bernadette Jordan had told her. But later, Simpson said, Jordan told her that the plans had changed and that her husband would not pick up the children.
Simpson said Bernadette Jordan told her that the two youngsters would be staying with her at home.
When police arrived at the fire scene, Bernadette Jordan was outside. Her arms and face were covered with scratches that police believe she received when she broke a window to escape the flames.
Jordan ran to a next-door neighbor to report that "something was wrong," inside her home, police said.
When police arrived, they attempted to get inside the house but were driven back by smoke and flames. When they were able to enter, they found the children, according to Smith.
Neighbors said that for most of the summer, Jordan slept with her two children snuggled beside her in the front bedroom. The family's lone air conditioner, bolted to the bedroom window, was the only relief the family had
from the summer heat.
Yesterday, police began to remove boards that were placed on the windows after the fire. Then they sorted through the rubble.
Simpson said she watched in disbelief. Her friend Bernadette was in the hospital. The children she had looked after were dead.
Sister Sheila Murphy, principal at St. Anne's, said, "Frances was a lovely child, gentle, sweet, cooperative. We were delighted to have her."
On Monday morning, neighbors said the bus driver for St. Anne's stopped the bus, filled with children, outside the boarded-up Jordan home. He briefly left the bus, knelt on the lawn and said a prayer.