Fire tore through a family's home in Schuylkill County on Mother's Day, killing four young children, their father and another relative while their mother was across the street doing laundry at a friend's house, authorities said.
The fire was reported at 11:55 p.m. Sunday at the single-family home in Pottsville. Firefighters later found all of the bodies on the third floor of the building, which sits on a steep hillside not far from the Yuengling brewery.
The fire was declared under control in about an hour. State police fire marshals were sifting through the debris later Monday morning as they searched for the cause of the fire, which investigators said began in the kitchen.
Fire Chief Todd March said it was the deadliest fire in Pottsville during his 37-year career in the city.
"It's hard to take, and there was nothing we could do," he said.
The Schuylkill County coroner's office identified the victims as the father, Eric Brown, 30; and his children, Elijah Brown, 2; Emily Brown, 3; Jeremiah Brown, 7; and Joy Brown, 8. Another adult, Kristina Thomas, 26, also died in the fire. She's the sister of 28-year-old Kelly Brown, the mother who survived.
Kelly Brown was doing laundry at a neighbor's house nearby at the time of the fire because her washing machine was broken, according to the neighbor, Jennifer Purcell. Purcell said they smelled smoke, and Purcell went outside and saw the flames, telling Brown, "Oh my God, your house is on fire!"
They both ran up the street to the house but weren't able to get inside, Purcell said.
Kelly Brown started screaming to emergency personnel keeping her back, "What do you mean I can't go in? My kids are in there. My husband is in there. My sister is in there. I've got to get them," according to Purcell. Brown got weak after that and had to be walked down the street because she couldn't stand, Purcell said.
Kelly Brown is now staying at her husband's relatives' house elsewhere in Pottsville, said Purcell, adding that they later spoke on the phone and her friend was devastated.
"She's a wreck," Purcell said. "Not only did she lose, as she said, her best friend, her husband, her kids, but it also happened on Mother's Day."
Neighbors said they heard screams for help, but the flames were too intense by the time they got to the house to try to rescue the family.
Jeff Kuhlwind, 50, who lives across the street, said he was on his computer in the front of his house when he heard screaming, "Help! Help me!"
He said he called 911, ran outside and saw "massive flames" shooting from a second-floor window, along with a woman screaming for help.
Kuhlwind and several other neighbors ran up to the front of the house, and he was about to go inside when he saw flames shooting out the front window and was forced away.
"Nobody was getting in. There wasn't no way," he said. "It went quick, really, really quick."
Investigators were looking at a wood-burning stove in the home's kitchen as a potential cause, though Chief March said it was only one among several possibilities.
A family friend, Keith Wykle – who had lit the stove shortly before the fire broke out – said he'd lit it many times previously and never had a problem with it. He said he had been hanging out with his friend Eric Brown earlier in the evening.
March also said there was no immediate evidence of smoke detectors in the home.
The upper two floors of the three-story home were charred and the rear of the building appeared to have sustained heavy damage, with several of the walls knocked out. Furniture and other debris sat on the front sidewalk.
Crews from all the city's fire companies responded to the blaze and March said investigators had to proceed carefully through the building because of the extensive amount of damage.
Neighbors were taking it hard, choking back tears as they recounted the fire and recalled the family who lived there.
"My heart's breaking for my little girl because I really don't think she understands," said Christina Groves, who lives behind the house. "They were her best friends ... and I don't think she understands the true meaning that her friends aren't coming back."