Friends and neighbors shook their heads in disbelief and stared long and hard at a charred West Philadelphia twin house that became a coffin for a young woman and her four children in an early-morning blaze today.
"She was a good mother and stayed with her children to the end," Clinton Williams, a family friend of the woman, Cornellry Robinson, said as tears welled in his eyes.
Firefighters found Robinson, 25, and the children huddled on a bed on the boarded-up second floor of her two-story Walnut Street home shortly after 3:20 a.m., Executive Fire Chief Daniel Williams said.
He said the house had an unsafe, illegal electrical hookup and a maze of electric space heaters, a kerosene heater, and outlet strips with multiple connections. The fire is still under investigation.
Chief Williams said Robinson had ignored her grandmother's pleas not to move into the dangerous, run-down house on Walnut near 59th Street.
The children, a girl and three boys, were identified as Josiah, 1; Mikel, 3; Christian, 4 or 5; and Alissa, 5 or 6, all named Johnson.
Robinson was four months pregnant when she died, according to Lashelle Porter, 23, of West Philadelphia, who said they were best friends since childhood.
Initial reports that the victims were squatters were unfounded, the chief said. But he said the house was in deplorable condition, with plywood covering some windows, and debris and an array of tires and refrigerators cluttering the interior. There was no heat service to the house. The adjacent twin was vacant and boarded up after an earlier fire.
Firefighters were surprised when they removed the plywood to get in and saw the bodies near where the fire started, Chief Williams said. Medics tried to revive the victims, who were pronounced dead at the scene.
"It was just in a shambles, no place where human beings should be trying to live," Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said.
Firefighters got the blaze under control at 4:02 a.m.
Porter described Robinson as "wonderful and always smiling" and said they had attended the old Our Lady of the Rosary Elementary School on 63d Street together. Robinson later became a hairdresser and dreamed of one day opening her own shop, Porter said, her voice quavering.
Maurice Massenburg, 59, who lives next to the Walnut Street house, remembers Robinson growing up there with her brother, Cornell, and several other siblings. "She was smart, articulate, a bright child who got a scholarship to go to a parochial school. She was very pleasant," he said.
But after her mother died, when Robinson was 17, she and her siblings moved in with their grandmother, Laura Robinson, Massenburg said. The Walnut Street house, which the children inherited, fell into disrepair and Robinson's boyfriend, who is the father of her children, moved into it, Massenburg said.
Occasionally Robinson and the children would stop by and visit, he said.
The boyfriend, who was not identified, was not in the house at the time of the fire, according to the fire chief. The boyfriend could not be reached for comment.
Robinson and the children had been living with her father for the last two years, but in December they moved into the Walnut Street house, her grandmother said. She urged her not to move back into the old house, telling her it was not safe.
"The boyfriend told her to move in. She's in love with him. He tells her what to do," Laura Robinson said.
Other neighbors on the otherwise tidy block of well-kept homes said they saw Robinson and the children enter and leave the house in recent months, but always through the side or back door, and they kept to themselves.
Some neighbors saw the boyfriend coming and going from the house in recent weeks and thought that it was empty but that they were fixing it up.
"They were a loving family," said Tahmir Prince, 26, a childhood friend of Robinson's. "But she was struggling real bad to feed the family. And she was going to school, too."
Clinton Williams, a friend of Robinson's father, Cornell, said he often saw Robinson and her children playing on the front steps. "She was a strong mother. She'd carry those kids everywhere she went. She'd never leave them behind," he said.
"Wow. I can't believe this," he said as his eyes stayed fixed on the upstairs bedroom.
"When you get away from your family like that, you could end up in a place like this," he said.