Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck said he witnessed two Chattanooga firefighters risk their lives to try - unsuccessfully - to save two children from a duplex fire in Bonny Oaks on Monday afternoon.
"I watched the whole thing unfold," said Mr. Beck, whose car was sitting in stopped traffic when the street near 6215 Bonny Oaks Drive was sealed off.
"I saw two firemen go in - very bravely. They went in, and the house was collapsing all around them," he said. "One came out with what I took to be a baby, all charred. And another fireman came out with a larger child, partially burned."
Fire Department spokeswoman Capt. Terri Whiteside said the children, a 7-month-old girl and 3-year-old boy, did not survive. She said their names and their mother's name would not be released until this morning.
Capt. Whiteside said the children's 9-year-old autistic brother was watching them while his mother visited with a neighbor. When the fire broke out, the 9-year-old went to a neighbor's house to seek help, and both the neighbor and an EPB contractor working nearby called 911 about 3 p.m. Capt. Whiteside said the fire, which began downstairs, was advanced by then.
"When we arrived the entire downstairs was in flames," she said. When firefighters received confirmation from the mother that there were children inside, they went in and found the youngsters in an upstairs bedroom.
"The infant was in a crib," Capt. Whiteside said. "The 3-year old was on the floor near the bed."
She said the baby died of smoke inhalation and was pronounced dead at the scene. The toddler had extensive burns, and died later at the hospital.
The mother told firefighters she had stepped out of the house and was "speaking with a neighbor," Capt. Whiteside said. "We're not sure whether she was inside the neighbor's house or outside."
Capt. Whiteside said the cause of the fire still is under investigation, as is any action fire investigators may or may not take against the mother.
"They are doing all their interviews tonight," Capt. Whiteside said.
She confirmed that one firefighter, Joshua Burchard, was burned on his ears through his protective clothing by the intense heat. The second firefighter who entered the house, Darin Honeycutt, was uninjured.
Mr. Beck said he was unaware when he began watching the fire that the firefighters who ran inside had been told someone might still be in the home.
"They both ran in and kicked doors in," the commissioner said. "Later, I saw the mother come around the house. ... She was quite distraught."
Mr. Beck said he had the presence of mind to try to videotape the scene on his cell phone.
"I would like to commend the firemen," he said. "They were very brave."