Questions surround fatal day care fire

February 26, 2011 5:42:02 AM PST
Houston fire investigators are still trying to figure out what sparked the fire that killed three children at a day care on Thursday afternoon, and there are questions about who was watching the children at the time.

On Friday, the names of two of the deceased children were released. Both are girls -- 19-month-old Elizabeth Kajoh of Cypress and 20-month-old Kendall Stradford of Katy. The name of the third child has not been released.

The scorched living room of the home day care gave a small indication of what it must have been like Thursday when seven toddlers were trapped inside the burning house, struggling to survive. Latoya Jones used to teach one of the kids at a different day care.

"It's unbelievable. We're all wondering what she was doing, why the kids were in there, why she didn't smell smoke, and why this happened," said Jones. "They're babies. They can't tend to themselves. They need supervision at all times."

Fire investigators are trying to zero in on whether the caretaker, identified as Jessica Tata, was actually home when the fire began, but so far she hasn't been interviewed.

Asst. Chief Lisa Campbell spoke to the media Friday afternoon and said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

"Arson division is awaiting the opportunity to speak with the caregiver," said Campbell. "We have not been able to speak with (caregiver) Jessica Tata. She was hospitalized and I don't have confirmation whether she's still in the hospital at this time."

Campbell also extended condolences to the families involved.

Although the fire department would not comment on camera, several arson investigators re-interviewed the two young men who tried to rescue the babies. Both have repeatedly stated that they saw Tata pull into her driveway with a car full of groceries and then moments later began screaming about a fire.

"First she told me that she had kids in the house, so I tried to go through the front door, but the front door was covered in smoke, so I couldn't go that way. So I tried to go through the backyard through one of the windows," said neighbor Geoffrey Deshano.

"Throughout that period of time, we were just like how can we get kids out of the house," said neighbor John Chestnut.

"I came to the side of the house in the backyard and smashed one of the windows open, and I could see a kid having his hands out. I tried to grab him, but the smoke got into my face and my mouth and I couldn't breath or see anything, and so I had to pull back," said neighbor Geoffrey Deshano.

Their accounts are pivotal to the fire investigation.

Tata's relatives wouldn't speak to us on camera though they insisted she was home when the fire started.

The state's childcare licensing division is also investigating, pointing out the bottom line is that children should never be left home alone.

"There should be someone home at all times in a registered child care home," said Gwen Carter, a child care licensing spokesperson.

The state's childcare licensing records show that although she had to add fire extinguishers to the home before getting her license, there were no complaints since the place opened in 2010.

"This home was licensed in March of 2010. Since then we cannot find one record of any concerns regarding this home. If there are no concerns, we only visit every two years," said Carter.

Neighbors and friends are still trying to make sense of the horrific tragedy.

Krystyna Bartels just had to see the house for herself, the house where the child of a longtime family friend perished Thursday afternoon.

"I'm heartbroken. I have no words. All I could do was just hold her in my arms and tell her that I love her. She has an 8-year-old boy also. Today, they're going to have to tell him he doesn't have a sister anymore and I don't know how you do that," said Bartels.

The Houston Fire Department says seven toddlers were staying at the day care altogether - ages 15 months to 3 years old. Three of them died in the fire.

It's a moment which which changed Bartels' circle of friends forever.

"I have to go see her this morning and just give her my love and that's all I can do, just pray that God is bigger than any pain we have. I know the mom can see the little girl someday," Bartels said.

Fire investigators say all seven of the victims were between 15 months and 3 years of age.

Investigators are still hoping to find out how and why the fire started.

One of four babies hospitalized released

One of two babies who survived the fire was released from Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital Friday night. The second child at that hospital remains in critical condition.

Two other survivors -- the ones with the most critical injuries -- were transferred Thursday night to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston which specializes in burn care. Both toddlers are in critical, but stable condition with second and third degree burns over less than a third of their bodies.

"The immediate difficulty is related to the breathing in of smoke that can cause difficulties with blood flow to the brain and can cause difficulties with the lungs," said Dr. David Herndon, Medical Director of Shriners Hospitals.

Dr. Herndon says they are considering either artificial skin or skin grafts to cover the burns.

"One of the children is going to the operating room today. Quite likely the other child will likely receive surgery as days go on," Dr. Herndon said.

Burn specialists must also watch for infections which kill about a third of burned children.

"Though we can't discuss the specific care of these patients, we hope they will have a good outcome as so many do when they are able to come here in their condition," he said.