It sounded like a car alarm going off way down the block.
Softly, but insistently.
Kelley Riegle paused the television show she was watching in the basement with her housemate Louise Thomason and asked, “Do you hear that?”
“I don’t know how she heard it,” Thomason said as she relaxed on the front porch of her southeast Wichita house Friday afternoon. “I barely heard it with the TV off, and she heard it with the TV on.”
Riegle went to see what was causing the noise shortly before 7 p.m. Thursday. She thought it was a car alarm. It turned out to be a smoke alarm in the house next door.
She saw wisps of smoke coming from a window of the house at 3915 E. Countryside, southeast of Harry and Hillside.
At first, she said, she thought someone had burned something in the kitchen and was just venting some smoke. But the smoke just kept coming, so she tried the front door. It was locked.
She stepped back into her house and yelled for Thomason to call 911. She returned to the smoking house and heard noises inside, so she ran to the back door.
When she got to the back door, she could hear young voices screaming, “Can’t get out! Can’t get out!”
She tried the door once. It wouldn’t budge.
Time was short. She tried again.
“She manhandled it,” Thomason said.
It opened, and a little girl jumped into her arms. Two other children ran outside right behind her. The girls, ages 7, 6 and 4, were home alone.
“They were screaming, ‘I’m scared! I’m scared! I’m scared!’” Thomason said. “They were terrified.”
By then, flames were leaping out of the side window, which is a bedroom, Thomason said.
The girl who jumped in Riegle’s arms was badly burned and not fully clothed. The 911 operator urged the women to sprinkle cold water on the girl’s burns, but she pleaded with them to stop because it hurt so much.
A neighbor knew how to reach the mother of the children, who had apparently gone to visit a friend a few blocks away.
About that time, “the real heroes arrived – the fire department and the EMS,” Thomason said.
The 6-year-old girl was taken to the burn unit at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, where she is in critical condition. She has second- and third-degree burns on 40 percent of her body, authorities said.
Her 7-year-old sister was treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation and released, Acting Fire Marshal Stuart Bevis said. Her 4-year-old sister was treated at the scene and didn’t go to the hospital.
An investigation revealed the 6-year-old found a lighter in a bedroom and began setting plastic on fire in a bathroom, Bevis said Friday.
The burning plastic, in turn, set the girl’s clothes on fire. She ran into her bedroom and was able to pull some of her burning clothes off, Bevis said.
Those burning clothes then ignited a fire that spread into the attic. The children ran to the back door, but couldn’t get it open.
Bevis said Thomason and Riegle “were instrumental in this not being worse than it already is. The kids may not have gotten out if not for these neighbors taking action.”
The Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit is investigating why the young children were left home alone. The two children not hospitalized have been placed in protective custody.
The 6-year-old girl who was seriously burned also suffered smoke inhalation, Bevis said.
“Any time you have a fire that started with the clothing, that’s a very serious burn,” Bevis said.
The fire caused an estimated $55,000 damage to the house and its contents. The fire was limited to the bedroom and part of the attic, he said.
The incident is a reminder of how dangerous lighters and matches can be in the hands of curious children, Bevis said.
“They’re not something that are supposed to be left around,” he said. “Just like a knife or gun, if we leave them around, bad things can happen.”
The quiet, tree-lined street was busier than normal with sightseers on Friday, Thomason said. The acrid smell of smoke still hung in the air as a restoration crew pulled charred debris from the house.
“I’m still kinda shaky from it,” Thomason admitted. “It was horrible to see.”
The roommates can’t quite get over the fact that they heard the smoke alarm at all. They were in the basement at the far end of the house with the television turned up.
“It was the hand of God,” Thomason said. “Nobody would have noticed until the house was fully involved” with flames. The children would almost certainly have been dead by then, she said.
As Thomason talked about the fire, her mailman strolled up to the house, glancing repeatedly at the pile of debris next door and smoky window frames of the brick house.
“Looks like you had a little excitement,” the mailman told her.
“Too much excitement,” she replied.