Careless cigarette smoking was to blame, said Fire Commissioner Harold B. Hairston. The fire not only splintered several families but also destroyed a neighborhood refuge.
``If I was hungry, I could go over there to eat. If I got locked out, I went over there,'' said next-door neighbor Dionne Carter. ``I practically grew up there.''
The Kingsessing blaze came 24 hours after a woman and four children died in a rowhouse fire in Reading, Berks County, and a fire in an Overbrook apartment building took the life of one woman.
Fire officials said that there were no obvious structural defects in the two-story home on Belmar Street, and that they were investigating whether it had smoke alarms and if they were functioning.
``I don't think we'll ever know for sure'' about the smoke alarms, said Hairston, who searched the home with a dozen fire officials. ``Common sense says there weren't any.''
By early evening, the medical examiner had released the names of the four children: Sherrell Bonner Roberson, a 6-year-old book lover in kindergarten at Hamilton Elementary School; her brother, Kareem Fittimon, 4; and sister, Ki-ara Fittimon, 2 - all of whom were visiting the house for the weekend. Their cousin, Devin Leatherberry Jr., 11 months, was the fourth young victim.
Although officials weren't confirming additional names, relatives and friends said the children's 23-year-old aunt, Fatima Bonner, who was mute, also died.Also killed was a 27-year-old male friend of the family's.
The children's uncle, Mark Bonner, 25, the brother of Fatima, underwent surgery for multiple injuries after jumping from the home and nearly severing his arm. He was in the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center's intensive-care unit last night.
One firefighter was treated at Allegheny University Hospitals / Hahnemann and released.
Hairston said the one-alarm fire was ignited by a cigarette on the first-floor living-room sofa, and could have taken up to two hours to consume the home. But without a smoke detector to alert them, the smoke likely rendered the inhabitants especially drowsy.
Neighbors said they noticed the fire around 5:15 a.m., after hearing glass shatter and seeing two men jump from second-story windows. Fire officials were notified at 5:24 a.m., and the fire was brought under control by 5:51 a.m., Hairston said.
One of the two men who jumped, the 27-year-old, was bleeding heavily and barely conscious when neighbors found him outside the rowhouse, having hit his head in the fall. Neighbors pulled him across 60th Street, away from the fire, leaning him against a red Chevy Nova. He later died at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.
The other man who jumped was identified by friends as Bonner.
``Mark looked at his arm, looked at the house, then tried to go back in,'' said Carl Neal, a longtime friend and neighbor. ``We had to pull him back. He just kept hollering about saving his family.''
The children's bodies were discovered in second-floor rooms, Hairston said. Fatima Bonner - whose identical twin was Devin's mother, according to friends - was found in a first-floor bedroom.
A few houses down Belmar Street, friends and family ducked in from the rain yesterday afternoon to grieve with Donna Roberson, Sherrell's grandmother. The women cradled their children, stared at snapshots, and prayed. The men stood in stone-faced support of their friend Del Roberson, Sherrell's father.
``Just yesterday I went to church for men's fellowship and gave my testimony about my life, God and my daughter,'' said Roberson, 22. ``I guess He was preparing me for this.''
Up and down the street, people agreed: If you were in need, the Belmar rowhouse had always been the place to go.
``They were family to everybody in the neighborhood,'' said Neal.
``They looked after my kids; I looked after theirs,'' said Carter, who, like most in the neighborhood, had been planning to go to Devin's birthday party.
The fire, and then the rain, turned the home into a burnt, wet mess. A red, soggy stuffed dog lay in a puddle on the street, not far from a tiny New Balance sneaker and a Sesame Street tote.
It appeared to have been a home of readers, as evidenced by the charred pages of encyclopedias, dictionaries, children's books, novels, and a Windows computer instruction manual. Surrounded by unopened cans of baby formula was a vinyl record with titles such as ``Love the World to Prayer'' and ``Get Your It Together.''
Admittedly unprepared for fatherhood as a 15-year-old high school freshman, Del Roberson often said he and Sherrell ``grew up together.'' With some struggle, he graduated from Bartram High School - after accidentally putting diapers into his bookbag more than a few times - and joined the National Guard, where he works in medical supplies.
Though he and Sherrell's mother, Naimae Bonner, a nurse's aide, are no longer a couple, he said, they remain close friends. On Friday, father and daughter had gone to a playground and to dinner. On Saturday, they had prayed together at Bethany Baptist Church.
``Sherrell was very intelligent, and outspoken,'' Roberson said. ''She said some of the wildest things, but never a word of disrespect.''
``She got bored in school, she'd get her work done so fast,'' added Donna Roberson, the grandmother. She has a son just two days older than Sherrell, she said, and often thought of the two as twins.
``She was so sweet, so smart. She was my heart.''