They came Monday night carrying balloons Alejandra Carmona would have loved. Family and friends gathered around the 4-year-old's grandmother, who clutched to her chest a photo of Alejandra in a Tinker Bell shirt — smiling, as always.
Relatives prayed just feet from the burnt-out mobile home where the girl died late Friday. Then they released the balloons. Some called out the girl's name. This was goodbye.
"They're going to heaven," someone in the crowd called out.
The evening vigil for the 4-year-old girl came as fire investigators continue to search for clues to what may have caused the blaze that destroyed the home where the girl lived with her father, his girlfriend and three other children. Everyone made it out except for Alejandra.
Hillsborough County fire marshal investigator David Tucker said the family had used candles the night of the fire and investigators consider that one possible cause for the blaze. "That is a working hypothesis we have at this time," said Tucker, though the family disputes that.
The home did not have smoke detectors that could have dramatically increased the odds of the girl getting out alive, Tucker said. About a dozen other homes in Wolf's Mobile Home Park were also without alarms, he said. Hillsborough County officials distributed free smoke detectors to some of the occupants Monday.
The mobile home park was last inspected in July 2013, he said. But that inspection was geared toward ensuring open access for emergency vehicles, not to inspect for smoke alarms, Tucker said.
The fire started about 11:30 p.m. as the family lay sleeping. Alejandra lived at the home with her father, Monico Carmona, his girlfriend, Kristina White, and three other children.
White said she woke up after having been asleep about an hour and saw smoke that appeared to be rising from beneath the couple's bed. She said Carmona tried to throw water from a glass onto the blaze, but that only seemed to make it more intense.
She grabbed Carmona's 7-month-old son and ran outside, where she handed the child to a neighbor. Two other children made it out, White said. She and Carmona went back into the home to try to get Alejandra.
At one point, White said she thought she could hear the child coughing. They called the girl's name. But they heard nothing else. As the smoke and heat became thick, they could see very little.
"We tried everything," White said. "But the smoke was so intense. It was just too late. We couldn't find her."
They tried breaking the windows in the room where the girl slept, hoping to reach in and pull her out. But they were forced back.
The entire home was consumed by flames in three minutes, White said.
The girl's parents are separated. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday with both sides unable to agree on whether Alejandra should be buried or cremated, according to Irene Valdez, the girl's grandmother.
The father, she said, favors cremation. But the mother and Valdez want the girl buried in a Ruskin cemetery where Valdez's son, who died in a car crash years ago, is buried.
"I still visit my son every holiday," Valdez said. "It's the perfect spot. We want to be able to visit her and bring her flowers on her grave. I want to be able to talk to her there."
The father, Carmona, who was treated at Tampa General Hospital for burns and cuts, did not attend the vigil and could not be reached for comment.
White said she and Carmona believe the fire was electrical and started under their bed and was not caused by candles, which she said were put out long before the fire.
Alejandra's mother, Erica Salazar, handed out balloons during the vigil. A television reporter asked her what she would say to her daughter if she could speak to her one more time.
"Mommy misses you," Salazar said, choking back tears. "She didn't deserve this. She was so happy. She did not deserve this."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.