Ernesto Flores was sleeping at his house in the 1300 block of South Water early Wednesday morning when he heard a pounding sound.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “And then I heard a lady yelling, ‘Help me, help me.’”
Flores looked across the street and saw flames pouring out of the house’s second-floor windows. The woman must have been pounding a wall from inside the house, he added.
He called 911. Other neighbors responded, including one man who helped the woman and her youngest son escape the burning house at 1343 S. Water about 4 a.m.
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But her 9-year-old wasn’t able to get out. Firefighters later found him dead in his bedroom, Battalion Chief Stuart Bevis said.
The 27-year-old mother and her youngest son were taken to Via Christi Hospital St. Francis in critical condition, a spokeswoman for the hospital said. They remained in that condition Wednesday afternoon, she said.
Authorities wouldn’t identify the victims, but a Wichita school district spokeswoman said the 9-year-old was a fourth-grader at Washington Elementary. The district’s crisis team was sent to the school, she added.
Bevis said the investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing. According to Sedgwick County 911, it was one of 11 residential fires – eight at houses and three at apartments – reported by 9 p.m. Wednesday after a cold snap dropped temperatures to an overnight low of 17 degrees.
Another 9-year-old child was treated for smoke inhalation after a house fire that broke out before 1 p.m. at 150 S. West St., a Sedgwick County dispatcher said. The child was not taken to the hospital.
Another fire Wednesday, this one at a house at 12610 W. Central, left two people with minor smoke inhalation, another dispatcher said. It was reported at 7:59 p.m.
On South Water, crews had the fire out within about an hour, but they returned to scene shortly before 1:30 p.m. when flames rekindled, the dispatcher said.
The two-story frame house was built in 1900, according to Sedgwick County records, and is on a block with older homes. Like a number of the larger homes in the area, the white, blue-trimmed house was divided into apartments.
The fire victims were in one of the two upstairs apartments. The other upstairs apartment and one of the two downstairs apartments were not occupied, Bevis said.
A man who lived downstairs escaped without injury, he added.
When crews arrived, heavy fire was pouring from the second-story windows. The mother and youngest son had escaped, but the mom told crews her 9-year-old son was still inside.
Firefighters went into the burning house, “even though fire was still raging a wall away,” Bevis said.
They found the boy in his bedroom and brought him outside. He was pronounced dead at the scene, Bevis said.
Bevis said he had been told the youngest son was 3 or 4 years old. A neighbor told The Eagle the boy had just turned 4.
Investigators talked to the mother briefly, Bevis said, but they weren’t able to get much information because of her condition.
“A lot of our investigation hinges on what she’s able to tell us,” Bevis said.
The mother and youngest child crawled out through a window onto a roof overhanging the porch, then crawled back through a window leading to the unoccupied apartment. They then came down a central stairway, Bevis said.
A neighbor met the mom and the child as they came down the stairs and helped them out, he added.
Thomas Angel, who owned an unoccupied housed next door, was at the scene around noon.
“It’s a tragedy,” he said. “Those were good kids.”
Bevis said there were smoke alarms in the house, but it wasn’t known whether they were working.
Wichita has had eight fire deaths this year, Bevis said. There were 11 last year.
Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias and Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle