Child, woman killed in North Philadelphia fire

Eugene "Sonny" Hayward said he didn't even want to try to imagine what his niece experienced right before she perished in an early-morning fire that also claimed the life of her 5-year-old great-grandchild.

"What her last moments were, I don't want to think about," said Hayward, who lives next door on the 1500 block of North Sixth Street in North Philadelphia.

Yet, hours later Saturday afternoon, as crews cleared away charred rubble, he couldn't get the fire out of his mind. "The smell of the smoke brings it back," he said.

The pleasant summer night had started calmly Friday. Neighbors were out late, sitting on steps.

Then, they heard shots, perhaps from the nearby playground. Most hustled inside as police circled nearby, their lights flashing. But the worst was to follow.

Malika Jettel, 24, who lives down the block from the burned house, had just gone indoors when she glanced back and noticed flames from the house reflected in a car window. She yelled for everyone to go outside, and soon neighbors were back on the street, watching the horrible drama unfold.

"I saw the family outside, screaming, hollering, and crying," she said.

Killed were Gwendolyn Cofield, 69, and her great-grandson, Lamar Anthony Thomas James, 5, known as T.J.

They were trapped on the third floor when the fire broke out about 12:05 a.m.

Officials did not release the names of the victims Saturday, but neighbors and relatives confirmed their identities.

The second and third floors of the house were fully engulfed in flames, police said.

The fire was brought under control about 35 minutes later. Medics at the scene pronounced the two victims dead at 12:30 a.m.

"When I looked, the fire was coming from the second floor and then it worked its way up to the top," Jettel said. "It happened so fast."

Cofield was yelling for help, but flames on the stairs prevented her and the child from escaping. Meanwhile, her granddaughter Tyana Simmons, T.J.'s mother, was watching in horror.

Simmons was sitting on the curb, talking to friends and neighbors when the fire began.

"She was yelling, 'Mom, please come out,' " Hayward said.

Others inside the burning house - Cofield's sister and brother and her brother's girlfriend and his 18-year-old son - managed to escape. They found shelter with friends and relatives, as did Simmons. Her other young son was not home at the time.

The 18-year-old tried to get back into the home, but was repelled by the flames, neighbors said. Hayward grabbed a garden hose, but that was no match for the fire.

Hayward said the two might have escaped if they had been able to make their way to a door that opens to the second-floor roof.

Hayward's house sustained smoke damage, broken windows, and a hole in the roof, he said. Some family members who lived there, including children and an infant, were put up by the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania because of the smoke.

In all, the Red Cross was helping 12 people affected by the fire, either with housing, or with food, clothing, shoes, emergency supplies, and counseling, the agency said.

Hayward said Cofield's home had been the family gathering spot for at least 50 years. The house had been owned by her parents.

"Everything was right there," he said. "Christmas, Fourth of July."

The two houses share a wall and each has a side yard, equipped with lawn chairs and grills.

On Saturday afternoon, a strong smell of smoke lingered in the air, and blackened frames edged windows that had already been boarded up.

"Gwen was a beautiful person - she was the chauffeur, the cook, the nurse - she did it all for you," Hayward said. "She didn't have no problem telling you how she felt, and at the same time, she didn't have no problem helping you."

T.J. recently had celebrated a birthday, and he enjoyed going to Bible school at the nearby Mennonite church.

He and his cousin, who lives with Hayward, were best friends and rode their bicycles up and down the block. They were willing to share with the other kids, neighbors said.

"T.J. was the cutest, baddest little boy in the whole world," Hayward said.

No one knows how the fire started, but Hayward said electrical work had been done at the house recently.

In the tight-knit neighborhood, before Saturday's tragedy, plans had been underway to close the street for a party over the July 4 weekend, block captain Rita Broadnax said.

Those plans are off now.