DETROIT — Piercing screams drowned out the snap and pop of burning wood and exploding glass as the blaze raced through the rickety wooden house on Detroit’s west side.
Somewhere inside cowered three children, ages 3, 4 and 5. They each would die in the blaze.
Three older children — cornered by heat, flames and a black curtain of toxic smoke — crowded against second-floor windows before dropping a 3-month-old to neighbors.
They “were in the window screaming and hollering. We were telling them to jump, but they wouldn’t jump,” said 18-year-old Jarmar Taylor, standing Wednesday outside the charred and blackened husk of the two-story house on Bangor Street.
Taylor said he and a friend noticed the flames about 6:45 p.m. Tuesday and raced across the street where they were joined by others from the neighborhood. They first tried to kick in the front door. When that wouldn’t budge, Taylor tried the back, but there “was too much smoke and fire,” he said.
Forming a circle out front, they finally coaxed the children to jump. “That was the only way they were going to come out,” he said.
The 3-month-old girl and an 8-year-old boy were being treated at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. The 8-year-old, and two older boys, ages 12 and 9, jumped to safety. The older boys did not go to a hospital.
Authorities were performing autopsies Wednesday.
Police spokesman John Roach said officials were investigating if the children — whose names have yet to be released — had been left home alone. He said police were questioning their mother and that the cause of the fire was under investigation.
The local power company said Wednesday that it had shut off illegal gas and electricity service to the house earlier Tuesday after an employee on rounds noticed meter locks had been cut.
DTE Energy originally cut off power on Dec. 11 at the request of a customer who was moving out, and there had been no new request for it to be turned back on, spokesman Scott Simons said.
Such tragedies occur too often in Detroit where many families are struggling with finances, job losses and paying the bills. A Jan. 5 fire claimed three lives in a house where illegally accessed electricity was used to power space heaters.
Energy theft cost DTE and its customers about $100 million last year, according to the utility, which reported 221,000 gas and electric shutoffs statewide in 2009.
A tearful Sewilla Wilson said her daughter spotted the flames from their home on Bangor Street.
“I said, ’Where are the babies?’ I knew they had babies. I saw somebody jump out the window and I saw the baby,” said Wilson, who took the 3-month-old into her home and wrapped the child in a blanket until firefighters arrived.
“I had the baby and she was trying to go to sleep,” she said. “I wanted to keep her awake. As long as she was crying I knew she was all right.”
Wilson was not sure how many children and adults lived in the house, but said they moved there in early January. They were just starting to settle into the neighborhood.
“My boys had a snowball fight Saturday with the little boys,” she said.
A makeshift memorial of three candles and stuffed toys adorned the concrete front steps of the burned house.
Updated 2:34 p.m.
DETROIT -- Fire swept through a Detroit home, killing three children and critically injuring two others who escaped out a second-floor window, authorities said Wednesday.
A 3-month-old girl was dropped from a top window of the two-story house where the blaze broke out around 7 p.m. Tuesday, fire officials said. Three other children, ages 12, 9 and 8, jumped to neighbors trying to catch them.
The infant and the 8-year-old were in critical condition at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. The 12-year-old and 9-year-old may have suffered minor injuries but were not hospitalized Wednesday.
It was not immediately known if an adult was in the home at the time of the fire. Investigators were speaking with the children's mother, Detroit police spokesman John Roach said.
The cause of the blaze is still under investigation.
Autopsies were to be performed Wednesday on the dead children, ages 3, 4 and 5, according to the Wayne County medical examiner's office.
Police and fire officials were still trying to identify the children and weren't sure if or how they were related.
Jarmar Taylor, one of at least two neighbors who caught the survivors, said he heard the children scream before they leaped for their lives from the intense flames and thick, choking smoke.
"The kids were in the window screaming and hollering. We told them to jump," Taylor, 18, said Wednesday morning outside the blackened husk of the home in a distressed neighborhood on the city's west side.
Unable to kick in the front door, several neighbors pushed through a rear door but were forced back out by the smoke and flames, he said.
Three tall, glass-encased candles burned Wednesday on the concrete front steps, as one woman walked up to the house, arms filled with stuffed animals to add to the makeshift memorial.
The family only had been in the house since January, said 47-year-old Sewilla Wilson, who grabbed the 3-month-old girl and wrapped her in a blanket until firefighters arrived.
"I said 'Bring the baby in here,"' Wilson told The Associated Press inside her own home Wednesday. "It was cold outside. I had the baby and she was trying to go to sleep. I wanted to keep her awake. As long as she was crying I knew she was all right."