The charred wall and boarded up windows are seen at the apartment where a fire killed a mother and three of her children early on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, on Nolan Court in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood.
Dominique Akrie, a next-door neighbor, said the "flames were just too much ..." when her husband tried to enter the burning structure. The fire started near midnight along Nolan Court in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. A mother and her three children died.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Neighbors walk by the apartment where a fire killed a mother and three of her children. Police and firefighters were turned back by intense flames at the housing complex just after midnight and were unable to save the 23-year-old woman, her 6- and 7-year-old sons and a 3-year-old daughter, Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones said. The girl's twin sister and a 31-year-old man who lived in the apartment escaped.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Police tape marks off the yard of the apartment where a fire killed a mother and three of her children early on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, on Nolan Court in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood.
By Moriah Balingit and Sadie Gurman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hours after the screaming stopped, neighbors said they watched as firefighters and police officers gathered on the narrow cul-de-sac of Nolan Court in North Homewood and hung their heads in silent prayer, facing the blackened facade of a home where a young mother and her three children perished.
Around midnight, when the fire was spotted, neighbors, police officers and firefighters tried to reach 23-year-old Indera Coulverson and three of her children but were pushed back by thick flames that spread quickly throughout the upper floors of the rowhouse. Ms. Coulverson's body -- along with the body of her sons Ky'Yrik, 6, and My'Zhirik McCullough, 7, and her daughter Ni'Miyah Crawford, 3 -- was found on the third floor.
"Sometimes despite our best efforts, we don't have the desired result," fire Chief Darryl Jones said at the scene early Thursday morning. "It hits the family hard. It hits the neighborhood. It hits the fire bureau."
Throughout the day, arson investigators, police and public officials streamed in and out of the building as authorities worked to determine the cause of the fire and if anything could have been done to prevent the tragedy. Police had not determined the official cause of the fire as of late Thursday.
Ms. Coulverson called 911 at 12:03 a.m. and told dispatchers that she had awakened to find her mattress on fire on the second floor of 1264 Nolan Court, off Mohler Street and Brushton Avenue. Moments later, firefighters learned there were four people trapped inside. Witnesses told police that Ms. Coulverson's boyfriend was alerted to the blaze by one of the boys, who had come down the stairs for a bucket for water, which he used in failed efforts to put out the blaze. The man and Ni'Miyah's twin sister, Ir'Riya, got out. Ms. Coulverson tried to pull the children to safety but was entrapped by the flames.
Kenya Mollett, 17, and her 13-year-old cousin Shaniya Gomez said they saw the fire from their home a half-block away. In bare feet, they rushed to the scene with Kenya's sister. Kenya and her sister pushed through the front door and found the boyfriend "rushing around" and Ir'Riya perched on the couch, crying. Kenya grabbed the girl and ran outside, handing her to Shaniya, who carried her back to their home and gave her a Popsicle to calm her down.
Dominique Akrie, who lives in an adjacent home, said she heard the patter of footsteps of people running as she sat in bed. Then she heard yelling outside.
She looked out the front window and saw flames. People were yelling and banging on her door, telling her to get out.
With her children and husband Terrence, she fled out the back door and saw her neighbor's boyfriend standing in the backyard, staring helplessly at the house with a look of shock, his cheeks wet with tears.
Her husband tried to get in through the back door, but flames had spread from wall to wall on the back end of the first floor.
Later, as neighbors streamed out of their houses, they said police officers pushed several people back as they tried to get into the burning structure, hearing someone scream "Help me!" from inside.
Firefighters had the blaze under control by 12:45 a.m., Chief Jones said.
Later Thursday, he added that firefighters were debriefed and counseled by a chaplain who came to the scene.
The official cause of the fire remains under investigation, said police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki, who was among those at the scene. City arson investigators, who routinely probe deadly fires, were still conducting interviews and reviewing the 911 call before they would make a final ruling. Neighbors said they heard that the children had been playing with lighters earlier in the day and might have caught the mattress on fire. Both Chief Jones and Cmdr. Stangrecki would say only that investigators are still exploring several theories.
The home, owned by the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, was last inspected on June 21, according to officials. Spokeswoman Michelle Jackson said the home's smoke detectors and fire alarms were found to be in working order. Inspectors also look to ensure that egresses are clear of furniture and clothes, so that residents can swiftly exit in an emergency.
"It's a very thorough inspection," she said.
Ms. Coulveron abided by tenant rules and had no violations, she added.
The boys were both first-graders at Pittsburgh Faison K-5. The district said in a statement that it is "saddened by the very heartbreaking loss."
"Ky'Yrik and My'Zhirik will be greatly missed by all who knew them," the Pittsburgh Public Schools statement said, adding that grief counselors were sent to help students and staff, and they would remain there "as long as needed."
Ms. Coulverson's children often stayed with her mother, Kim Johnson, who lives just a few blocks away on Stranahan Street in a brick home. Thursday, Ms. Johnson, came to Nolan Court, driven by a housing authority official, where she was met by Councilman Ricky Burgess and Fulton Meacham, head of the housing authority. Mr. Burgess hugged the petite woman, offered his condolences and told her, "We will do everything we can to assist you."
Ms. Johnson was one of several people who stopped by the home and got out their cars, staring wordlessly at the charred facade. The front door ajar, a Christmas tree wrapped in shiny tinsel could be seen.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl toured the home along with Mike Huss, chief of Public Safety. He said he was shaken by the scene.
"The tragedy of losing four people, especially three young kids, is tough for everybody," he said. "It's just very disturbing thinking about what happened here last night."
That evening, even as rain fell, neighbors, classmates and young teammates from the boys' youth football league gathered around the home, writing messages on the plywood that boarded the windows and leaving teddy bears, toys and lit candles. The boys, known as rambunctious, played for the Lincoln Big Cats.
Ms. Coulverson was going to Community College of Allegheny County and working at a church, said Mrs. Akrie. She also did women's hair out of her home.
Mr. Burgess, who said he was asked by the family to be its spokesman, said they were grateful for the thoughts and prayers of their neighbors but too distraught and overwhelmed to answer reporters' questions. Ir'Riya is in Ms. Johnson's care, he said.
The family needs help paying for "immediate expenses" and funeral arrangements, Mr. Burgess said. He helped Ms. Johnson set up the Indera Coulverson and Family Memorial Fund through a Homewood branch of PNC Bank, though donations can be made at any branch.
He said he spent much of the day with the family but had not been in touch with Ms. Coulverson's boyfriend.
"I've been a preacher 30 years, and this is one of the saddest things I have ever seen," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family."
The medical examiner's office said later Thursday that all four family members died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Investigators said the boys' cause of death as accidental but noted that the manner of Ms. Coulverson and her daughter's deaths was listed as pending.