Chester fire kills 2 young girls, burns boy

A firefighter in the doorway of the home on the 900 block of East 15th Street in Chester that was ruined by fire early Wednesday.
A firefighter in the doorway of the home on the 900 block of East 15th Street in Chester that was ruined by fire early Wednesday. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2013

When she first heard the piercing shriek, Candace Earnest thought it might simply be her children at play.

Then she opened her bedroom blinds and it became clear that the sound was an anguished cry coming from the home of neighbors Tim and Taisha Ferguson.

"I could only see smoke," Earnest said. It was just before 6:30 a.m. Black, billowing clouds were pouring out the windows of a rowhouse next door, in the 900 block of East 15th Street, a well-kept Chester neighborhood just east of Widener University.

The fast-moving fire claimed the lives of Amajhay H. Ferguson, 10, and a 6-year-old girl. Critically burned was a 4-year-old boy. Five firefighters suffered injuries. The identities of the children other than Ferguson have not yet been released.

Neighbors said the Fergusons had a young son and two daughters. Cousins were staying at the house because their father had been hospitalized after an accident.

When Earnest realized her neighbor's house was on fire, she yelled for her husband, Michael. The two threw on clothes, called 911, and dashed outside.

Candace Earnest, a sales representative, ran to Taisha Ferguson, who was standing in the front yard with two children. Earnest took her in her arms.

"My babies, my babies," Ferguson wailed. The two women prayed.

Michael Earnest, 42, a sales manager for a heavy equipment company and a Marine veteran, headed after Tim Ferguson, toward the front door.

Ferguson, who woke to the sound of a smoke alarm, had already made a trip into the burning home to bring out children. Three remained upstairs in bedrooms. The men tried but couldn't enter through the front door.

"The heat was so intense," Michael Earnest said.

They ran to the rear of the house and climbed on top of an enclosed back porch in an effort to reach the children. Earnest said Ferguson had burns on his legs and arms. Windows began to pop, glass could be heard shattering, and then the flames burst forth.

"There was nothing you could do," said Michael Earnest. "The father did everything he could."

As they stood helpless outside, Ferguson cried out: "My children, my children, my children are still in the house."

Chester firefighters arrived within five minutes of the first emergency call.

"They did everything they could to save people's lives," said Dan Dodds, 75, who lived next door to the fire.

The boy was removed from the home and taken to Crozer-Chester Medical Center with severe burns. He was listed in critical condition. A medical examiner's van removed the bodies of two young girls, who were found in separate bedrooms, fire officials said.

A neighbor, Haneiyah Toler, 12, said she used to play with Amajhay. Toler described her as having long braids and a shy smile, as fond of skipping rope and her favorite show on the Disney Channel, Shake It Up.

Battalion Chief Jack Powers said the two-alarm blaze broke out in the kitchen or dining room of the two-story beige-stucco house. The cause of the fire was under investigation, said Fire Chief James Johnson.

The fire was brought under control in 30 minutes, Powers said, and no neighbors were evacuated.

Four firefighters were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Two were released and two were held for observation. A fifth firefighter was treated at the scene, officials said.

At the hospital, clergy was with the "distraught" family, said Fire Chaplain Robert Johnson.

"Everyone is rallying around the family . . . as they try to process what happened," he said. "They are looking for answers we don't have."


Contact Mari A. Schaefer at 610-313-8111, mschaefer@phillynews.com or @MariSchaefer on Twitter.

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