Heavy iron bars fastened over the doors and windows at a southeast Houston apartment complex were meant to protect residents from preying criminals. The barriers, however, may have prevented firefighters Tuesday from saving three small children who were left unattended when flames erupted at the St. Joseph Condominiums, 8250 Park Place.
"It was a huge issue," said HFD Assistant Chief Tommy Dowdy. "Once a fire is going like that, it's growing exponentially."
Two-year-old twin girls and their cousin, a 4-year-old boy, apparently were left alone inside the home. They were pronounced dead at Memorial Hermann Hospital, officials said.
The children were being watched by an older relative, possibly their grandmother, who left them in the care of other teenage family members while she went to the store, officials said.
It was unclear Tuesday just what happened after the woman left the home. But when firefighters arrived, the only people found inside the burning apartment were the three children, Dowdy said.
A 15-year-old boy -- apparently one of the teenagers left to care for the children -- was later treated for injuries he sustained at the scene trying to rescue his young relatives.
"I think he cut his feet because he was frantically trying to get in there to help them," Dowdy said. "He did not have smoke on him."
HFD officials said the fire may have started on the back porch of the apartment next to where the children were found.
Fire crews battled the flames that broke out about 3 p.m. in the rear area of the apartment. Other firefighters raced around the building when residents in the complex told them about the children trapped inside the front room. With no firefighter who spoke Vietnamese, rescuers were briefly delayed in their search for the children as they struggled with the language barrier. Two missionaries who happened to be at the complex helped with translation.
The rescue crews attacked the wrought iron gates blocking their entry.
"They cut until their saw did not have a blade. Then, they physically pried the bars open," Dowdy said. "It took them several minutes to cut through (and) beat through the door."
One of the firefighters used a handheld thermal imaging device to search for the children inside the living room, by then blackened by thick clouds of smoke.
"He saw them immediately," Dowdy said. "Two were huddled together -- another was about three feet away. They were all unconscious."
Paramedics struggled to save the children during the ambulance ride to the hospital, Dowdy said.
The children did not appear to have been burned by the flames. Although an autopsy is planned, firefighters said they apparently succumbed to smoke inhalation.
Vu Dao, a resident of the apartment complex, said he was at work when his wife frantically called about the fire.
"She told me to get home immediately because the neighborhood was on fire," he said. "When I arrived here, there were already ambulances and firetrucks. I felt very worried."
Cradling his small son in his arms, Dao said he didn't know the victims but grieved for their families.
"It's a very sad story. I feel sorry for them," he said.
Former resident Tony Vo, 14, said Tuesday wasn't the first time firefighters were sent to the complex.
"It's been a long time since there's been a fire that big around here," said Vo, who was visiting his parents at the time.
The flags of Texas and the U.S. top the gate leading into the complex, with the ensign of the former South Vietnamese republic placed alongside.
A small chapel dedicated to St. Joseph sits in a courtyard near the front entrance. The residents, mostly Catholic and almost wholly Vietnamese, are planning a prayer meeting for the victims and their families, said Lawrence Thi Tran, who identified himself as a manager of the complex.
The Rev. Paul Chovanec, from nearby St. Christopher's Catholic parish, stopped by to offer comfort. He said there are dozens of apartments where the area's burgeoning Southeast Asian community has brought elements of its culture and way of life to Houston.
"They have taken this apartment complex over and run it like a little Vietnamese village," Chovanec said.
HFD stress management teams were at the scene Tuesday to assist the fire crews who brought the children from the apartment.
"We'll probably send those guys home. ... It's traumatic," Dowdy said. "It was a very heroic effort on their part."
Written by Houston Chronicle
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