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Memphis House Fire ‘Most Tragic Since 1920s’

Nine people — five children and four adults — died early Monday in a Memphis house fire, and one other child is fighting for life at a hospital, authorities said.

The fire is being called the city’s most deadly of its kind in nearly a century. Investigators are piecing together what caused the blazed and why the victims could not escape.

Firefighters initially saw light smoke outside of the single-story wood-and-brick home in south Memphis when they arrived about 1:20 a.m. but quickly encountered heavy smoke inside once they entered the building, Memphis Fire Services Director Gina Sweat said.

Fire crews found four adults and three children dead inside, Sweat said at a news conference. Two other children died after being taken to a children’s hospital in extremely critical condition, she said.

“According to our records this is the most tragic loss of life in a single fire incident since the 1920s,” Sweat told reporters. “The hearts of the men and women of the department are heavy and deeply touched from the dispatchers who took the call to the first responders who were on the scene.”

“I’ve never seen firemen cry, but they were bawling like babies when they brought the children out,” Shoundra Hampton, whose family lives next door, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “We’ve all lived over there for 40 years and we are just devastated.”

The most recent fire to take nearly as many lives was in 2008, department spokesman Wayne Cooke said.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland asked for prayers for family members of the dead, who weren’t immediately identified. Some of the victims had signs of smoke inhalation, while others had burns, according to authorities.

“It’s a very sad day,” Strickland said. “We are all in mourning.”

The wooden-frame home, which has a brick facade and bars on some of its windows and doors, is in a poor, working-class neighborhood of south Memphis. A smoke detector was found in the house, but it was damaged and officials didn’t immediately know if it was working at the time of the fire, Sweat said.

The fire official also said it wasn’t immediately clear if those inside had tried to escape through the windows. Sweat said window bars present a danger for people trying to escape a house fire, though many window bars have releases that can open them from the inside.

“They could have been simply overcome by smoke and never had an opportunity to escape,” she said.

An exact cause hasn’t yet been determined, though Sweat said the fire apparently began in the living room. While the inside of the home was charred, the house didn’t burn down and fire officials said only part of the house was affected by the fire.

Sweat went to the site early Monday and spoke with firefighters shocked by the loss of life.

“You could feel the heavy in their hearts, and you could see the pain in their eyes,” she said.


 Image:  Pastor Mary Moore, left, and Janie Hendrix view a Memphis home where an early morning fire killed multiple people. AP / Karen Pulfer Focht