Witnesses struggled to maintain their composure as they described a scene of pandemonium: the battered SUV; the swarm of police and ambulances; the bodies scattered across the grassy lot on Allegheny.
"There are no words to describe how I feel right now," Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey told reporters at a news conference. Capt. James Clark called the incident "one of the saddest cases I've come across" in six years with the Homicide Unit.
Clark said the Toyota 4Runner that hit the children was carjacked about a mile away about 11 a.m.
The vehicle belonged to a real estate agent who was showing a house to a client in that neighborhood, he said. She had just wrapped up a meeting and was preparing to leave when two men approached the vehicle and forced their way in at gunpoint, Clark said.
They made the woman drive for some time before forcing her into the backseat, Clark said. One of them then took the wheel and sped north to Allegheny and Germantown, he said.
Police were still piecing together what happened at that intersection, Clark said. At some point, the vehicle blew a tire; at some point, the driver lost control and veered over a curb into the fruit stand.
"Something went horribly wrong," Clark said.
A 10-year-old boy was pronounced dead at the scene. His sister and his younger brother were later pronounced dead, she at Temple University Hospital and he at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. The children's mother, 34, was in extremely critical condition at Temple, police said.
Police did not release the names of the children or their mother.
Thelma Brown, 65, a neighbor of the shattered family, was also injured in the crash. Her granddaughter Sakina Brown said neighbors ran down her block Friday morning and told her a car had hit the group on the corner.
"All they said was, my grandma got hit and there were bodies everywhere," she said. "My heart was about to jump out of my chest."
She found her grandmother on the sidewalk being tended to by a paramedic. She said her grandmother had seen the truck coming and turned to run but was hit anyway, and suffered a broken ankle and a bruised sternum. She was in stable condition at Hahnemann University Hospital.
Brown said the family sold fruit each week to raise money for a church organization that hoped to turn the lot into a children's playground.
The real estate agent, 45, was in critical but stable condition at Temple and talking to detectives, Clark said.
The carjackers, described only as an African American man and a Hispanic man, abandoned the vehicle after the crash.
Sim Hollie, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, said he saw two men running west on Allegheny shortly after the accident. They then ran down the 3100 block of North Camac Street, he said.
A police source said investigators found a white T-shirt with what appeared to be blood on Camac.
Clark urged anyone who knew anything about the incident to call homicide detectives at 215-686-3334, or the anonymous tip line at 216-686-TIPS.
Shaken employees at Education Works, an education nonprofit across the street from the lot, said they were alerted by coworkers of an accident across the street and ran across Germantown Avenue into "chaos."
"I ran across the street, and the boys were laying lifeless," said Karen Payne, who runs a summer camp at the nonprofit. She checked their pulses, she said - one boy had none, the other's was barely there.
"There were bodies all over the lot . . .," she said. "I'm certified in first aid and CPR - my first instinct was to go to them. But I couldn't help."
A teacher at nearby Mary McLeod Bethune School said she was stunned to see a body bag on the ground. "That's when I lost it," she said, wiping away tears.
Some may have passed through her class, she said. "Waiting for the names is the scary part," she said.
Neighbors in the 1200 block of Hilton Street, about a block from the crash scene, said the mother injured in the crash, whom they knew as Keysha, operated the stand with her children every Friday and Saturday.
They said the woman and her children also tended a neighborhood raised-bed garden at Germantown and Hilton. "They took care of that garden," Joyce Fisher said. "They were proud of that garden."