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6 killed in motel fire that sends guests fleeing out windows

A fire filled a five-story motel with thick, disorienting smoke early Sunday, killing six people and forcing other panicked guests to jump out of windows or climb down bed sheets to safety, authorities said.

At least a dozen people were injured, including five in critical condition at a burn unit in Augusta, Ga. A sixth person was expected to be transferred there.

Guests and authorities said smoke filled the motel quickly, sending guests in their pajamas into a chaotic scramble for the exits and a cold rain outside.

"I opened the door and all we saw was smoke," said Donessa Wilson, who said she and her boyfriend were awakened on the fourth floor by a fire alarm and then heard a woman screaming.

The smoke was so thick that one guest jumped from a third-floor window onto a solid canopy when the stairwell was just a few steps away, Greenville County Coroner Parks Evans said. Blood could be seen on the outside walls of the motel near a broken window.

The Comfort Inn had standpipes and wall-mounted hoses in the hallways and stairwells, but none had been activated and no fire extinguishers were used before emergency crews arrived, said Wade Hampton Fire Chief Gary Downey. He said the 20-year-old building passed its last inspection less than a year ago, and was not required to have sprinklers.

"If there had been sprinkler systems in the hallways, probably the fatalities and injuries would not have been near what they were," Downey said.

The blaze began about 4 a.m. on the third floor of the hotel, which had 46 registered guests. The cause was under investigation.

All the bodies were found on the third floor. Those of Jaden Damarion Cromer, 15 months, and his mother, Melba Lashawn Canty, 21, of Taylors, were found in the hallway, as were Allison Lorraine Barfield, 19, of North Augusta, and Jessica Lane Hamby, 19, of Conover, N.C. The bodies of Matthew Greene, 26, of Greenwood, and Donna Lea Swaim, 36, of Conover, N.C., were found in separate rooms, Evans said.

The smoke overcame the victims so quickly that at least two of them appeared to have fallen as they were walking or running down the hall, some of them disoriented and moving toward where the fire was most intense, Evans said.

Those injured suffered from smoke inhalation, burns and cuts received trying to get out the windows, Downey said.

Greenville County Sheriff's Sgt. Shea Smith said deputies arrived before firefighters and ran into the building to evacuate people, but they couldn't get past the second floor because of the smoke.

Terry Letterman of Spruce Pine, N.C., climbed down from the third floor using a rope of knotted sheets. "I wasn't scared," he said. "I didn't have time to be scared."