As investigators continued to comb through rubble Tuesday, LaDonna Lee recalled the two children she lost in an early morning blaze as “fun little kids.”
Lee’s daughter, Ire Johnson, 11, and son, Israel Johnson, 6, died while sleeping upstairs in their Meadowview home just after 2:30 a.m. Tuesday despite firefighter efforts to rescue them.
“Those little kids right there were really cool,” Lee said of Ire and Israel. “They transitioned without any pain. I talked to the coroner and I had to ask the hard question. They were asleep. That gives me some peace.”
The tragedy so jarred the community that officials including Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Larry Carr offered condolences and community support at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. The “Cole Memorial Fund” has been established at Wells Fargo Bank and is accepting donations to assist the family, they said. The Red Cross and other agencies are providing temporary and permanent housing help.
“The (surviving) children were standing on the sidewalk with blankets” after the fire, Carr said during the news conference. The councilman went to the scene Tuesday morning. “They have absolutely nothing.”
Investigators are still determining the cause of the blaze. It also was not known whether the home had a working smoke detector.
The modest two-story home sits in a court amid a working class neighborhood of mostly single-story homes. A large shade tree, turned brown by the season, obscured most of the damage Tuesday. Through much of the morning, family members stood in the court recounting the night’s events while moving from hug to hug.
When firefighters arrived at the home in the 2200 block of Babette Way, they found the blaze furiously burning inside the two-story home. Smoke poured from the windows and the front door.
Outside the home in the cold night air were five of the residents who had escaped the blaze. They frantically told firefighters that there were children upstairs. Lee, who lives elsewhere, said the kids’ father and her oldest son were among those who escaped the flames.
Firefighters immediately entered through the front door, carrying a hose line. But they encountered heavy flames, indicating that the blaze had been burning for a significant amount of time, said Sacramento Fire Department firefighter-paramedic Chris Harvey.
A second hose line was hauled into the house in an effort to reach a stairwell to the second floor. Once the crew reached the stairs, it was apparent even in the dense smoke that the fire had eaten away at the stairs, making them useless to firefighters.
“When our crews got to the scene there were family members standing on the sidewalk yelling that there were two kids upstairs,” Harvey said. “That is why the attempt was made to get back to the staircase as quickly as possible. But there was too much fire and the stairs had burned through.”
Firefighters backed out of the home and additional crews using ladders entered the house through second-story windows. There they found the children’s bodies.
Lee said those in the home during the fire are having a harder time coping with the tragedy. She said she was trying not to relive the early morning phone call from the children’s father informing her of the fire.
“There are things we can’t redo. Answers we won’t have,” Lee said. “I’m not replaying it. … I’m not going to torture myself like that. The reality is the coroner took away the remains of the bodies.”
Ire and Israel Johnson were students at Union House Elementary School. Administrators at the school on Tuesday referred inquiries to Donna Cherry, associate superintendent of elementary education with the Elk Grove Unified School District.
She said the families of Union House students were being notified by letters and phone calls of the siblings’ deaths to allow parents to break the news to their youngsters. She said additional counselors will be at the school Wednesday to help students cope with the loss of their classmates.
“It’s tragic,” said Latisha Simmons, a neighbor. “I’d see them ride past every day. I just saw them yesterday”
Harvey said the lead firefighter making the foray into the house suffered first- and second-degree burns on his ears and cheeks. He was treated at UC Davis Medical Center and released. Fire officials said the injured firefighter, a six-year veteran, was wearing proper protective gear and did not break protocol. The responding unit reached the home in about 3 minutes, said assistant chief Michael Bartley.
Johnson and Carr called on the community to support the family and contribute to the memorial fund, to be managed by the neighborhood association, by dropping a check at any Wells Fargo Bank. Johnson said funeral expense are “the last thing this family should have to worry about.”
“Our hearts, our thoughts, our prayers go out to the family,” Johnson said during the news conference. “A city mourns today. Our hearts are heavy.”
Johnson and fire officials encouraged households to ensure they have working smoke detectors and an evacuation plan.
Property records indicate the house was built in 1960 is owned by Shirin Bali and Arvindra Bali of Sacramento. They could not be reached for comment Tuesday.