Two sisters-in-law slipped into ponchos on Wednesday morning and waded through the ashes of a small frame home in Kilgore.
As they worked toward the back bedroom, Sherry Ritchie and Joanie Cummings filled trash bags with smoke-stained clothes they believed could be salvaged. But mostly they filled bags with debris that was burnt, or melted, and ruined.
“A lot of stuff is gone,” said Ritchie. “It’s just a pile of ashes.”
Ritchie and Cummings took frequent breaks, because the smoke that hung in the air made it difficult to breathe. Ritchie tied grocery bags over her shoes and wore a shower cap to protect her hair.
By midafternoon, the sisters-in-law had finished their task, and they rested on the front porch of the home on Williams Street. Surrounded by more than a dozen overstuffed trash bags, they talked about the fire that had taken the lives of their great-nephew and great-niece the previous morning.
On Tuesday, their niece Shannon Jenkins, 23, had been watching TV in the living room when her children asked if they could play in the backyard. Micheal Robinson was 3 years old and had big blue eyes. His little sister, Elizabeth Jenkins, was always at his side. She had celebrated her first birthday earlier in the month.
The two of them headed toward their bedroom, where a back door opened to the yard.
Jenkins’ sister, Tanya, was asleep with her own baby in another room. She was the first to smell the smoke. She fled with her daughter through the front door, and Shannon Jenkins followed. She ran around the house to the backyard, but her children weren’t there. She heard them cry out. They were still inside.
She ran back into the house through the living room, then through the kitchen into a hallway that led to the back bedroom. Smoke was billowing out of it. She looked through a glass window in the door, and Micheal and Elizabeth were there.
“She could see them on fire. She could see them screaming,” Cummings said. “The bed just burst into flames, like it was gasoline.”
Outside, Tanya Jenkins tried to break through the back door. Inside, smoke was filling the hallway, and Shannon Jenkins was unable to get into the room.
“Your instincts kick in and you try to do whatever you can to get those children out,” Cummings said, “but the smoke was so thick she couldn’t breathe. Your body gets into survival mode, and you save yourself.
“She was gone. She shut down. That’s why she ran out of the house, screaming for help, because she was helpless.”
Ritchie shook her head.
“If they were my kids, I don’t know,” Ritchie said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
“I probably would have died with them,” replied Cummings. “But I don’t know that. Because your body wants to breathe. It has to.
“It’s just a horrible, horrible, horrible thing.”
The fire department received the emergency call at 10:46 a.m. and was at the house four minutes later. Micheal and Elizabeth already were dead. The firefighters contained the blaze to their back bedroom, but the entire house was damaged by smoke and water.
Investigators have ruled out arson, but haven’t determined what caused the fire. The bedroom had doubled as a utility area, with a washer, dryer and hot water tank.
“To tell you the truth, we might never know what caused it,” Fire Marshal Mark Frederick said.
Shannon Jenkins’ parents were at work at the time of the fire. Her oldest son, 6-year-old Zachery, was playing next door at a friend’s house.
It was a rental home, and there were no smoke detectors. There also was no rental insurance. Cummings said the family is staying with various relatives, but they need clothing and bedding. A drop-off location has been set up at XXX, and a fund has been established at XXXX Bank.
According to Cummings, Shannon Jenkins has been treated for smoke inhalation and remains in shock.
Funeral arrangements are pending for the children.