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911 call from fatal Tampa fire: 'There's kids in the house'

TAMPA

Flames overtook the small wood-frame house next door as Ariel Dunlap warned 911 about the children inside.

"There's kids in the house," the 21-year-old frantically told a dispatcher.

"The roof is literally on fire. It's smoke. There's kids in the house. It's literally … Oh my god."

Her father found the home at 3720 E Paris St. ablaze on his way to work Tuesday morning. He banged on the doors and windows, shouting for the woman and her grandchildren to wake up.

But he couldn't break through the 30-year-old iron burglar bars bolted to every entryway.

Neither could those trapped inside.

Those bars turned the home into a fiery prison Tuesday that cost a grandmother and two children their lives, and left a third child critically injured.

Sheryl James, 61, was pronounced dead at the scene. Two of her grandsons, Reshard Ashley, 8, and Emjay Jackson, 3, died at local hospitals. A third grandson, Romello Jackson, 8, was in critical condition at Tampa General Hospital.

"To wake up this morning and not see them anymore … I'm heartbroken," said Dunlap, who'd lived next door for about nine months. "I loved those kids like they were my own brothers."

Tampa Fire Rescue believes the victims spent their last moments trying to escape.

Three of the family members were found under a mattress in a back bedroom, as if shielding themselves from the flames, firefighters said. A fourth was found in a bathroom.

The cause of the fire was electrical, officials said. A power cord in a side bedroom had many cords coming out of it, including one wire that was spliced.

Family and friends gathered on the street outside later Tuesday, sobbing as word spread of the fatal fire.

They called James a kind and caring grandmother.

Reshard was goofy and always cracking jokes.

Romello, they said, is the quiet one.

Emjay, the 3-year-old, called the neighbor his girlfriend.

"They were just so full of life," said Alicia Fletcher through tears.

Fletcher, 37, said her grandfather, Clarence Fletcher, lived at the Paris Street home with James, his girlfriend and caretaker. Clarence was not in the house at the time of the blaze, relatives said, because he was already in the hospital for unrelated health problems.

The home, they said, had been in the Fletcher family for at least half a century. Fire officials said it was destroyed, with damage to the home and its contents estimated at $42,000.

There were no smoke alarms in the home, said Fire Marshal Milton Jenkins, and the burglar bars, common in that neighborhood, had no quick release apparatus.

"I could only imagine how terrifying it could've been, to feel trapped and not able to get out," Jenkins said.

"This could have been prevented if they (had) the proper safety devices."

An hour after the 911 call at 4:31 a.m., the fire was extinguished, authorities said. Rescue units were on the scene within four minutes and found flames shooting from the back of the home. The roof was partially collapsed. One firefighter suffered from heat exhaustion, officials said.

As investigators combed through the home's charred remnants, neighbor Jessica Klopchin, 38, stood down the street, wept and prayed: "Please, father," she said aloud. "Take care of them."

She remembered Monday, the last time she saw her friend, "baby Sheryl," when the woman asked for a cigarette and money for beer.

"She didn't have anything," Klopchin said. "But she would give the world for anybody."

Her face was familiar around the neighborhood, Klopchin and others said. Often, she panhandled on the street or at a nearby gas station, asking for food and money. Each day, she walked the two eldest boys — both third-graders — to Sheehy Elementary School a few blocks away.

On Tuesday morning, that same school mourned. Reshard and Romello's desks were empty. The day started with a moment of silence. There was opportunity to talk and cry.

"We're like family here," said vice principal Diane Levy. "We loved them."

Classmates decorated cards for the boys. "I sorry for lost. He was my friend," one child wrote, beside a crying sad face. Another, next to a heart, penned: "I miss you. I hope we can see you one day."

"This evening, when the dust settles, the loss will be especially poignant," said school psychologist Vito Ricciardi.

As dusk fell Tuesday night, more than 60 people — holding glowing white and purple candles — gathered outside the crumbling home.

At least half were children.

They closed their eyes and sang hymns, belting "Jesus, we need you" again and again.

A pastor from the church next door spoke of faith and they sang again.

Then, together, they approached the family's mailbox — adorned with stuffed animals, soccer balls, footballs and plastic toy trucks — and scattered their burning candles below.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Zachary T. Sampson and Anne Steele contributed to this report. Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Contact Michael Majchrowicz at mmajchrowicz@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

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