Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fatal fire has areas considering safety

Inspections on rental properties supported, but the law is limiting


Jan 28, 2007

Few places in Virginia require rented homes and apartments be inspected to make sure they're safe.

But it's an idea that some are talking about after a fire in a rundown Petersburg neighborhood claimed the lives of three children.

Petersburg officials say they already had been thinking about joining the small group of cities that require inspections of rented houses and apartments -- a group that includes Hopewell and soon will include Colonial Heights. No other central Virginia municipality requires inspections.

"I'm surprised," said Barbara Garber, 77, a renter for 11 years before being burned out of her Chesterfield apartment Jan. 22. She was happy with her apartment but feels it makes sense to have building code experts regularly examine rented homes.

"They should have inspections. If I would go rent a home, naturally I would want it to be protected. It should be."

But the state law that allows localities to inspect rented houses and apartments limits their power to do so, under a compromise with real estate interests. For instance, cities may inspect only the rental dwellings in a predesignated area, instead of citywide. The law says inspections should be done once a year but that property owners should get a four-year exemption if an inspection finds no problems.

Petersburg City Manager B. David Canada said those rules mean a city has to decide how it wants to use the authority: either to prevent blight, which is the approach most building officials see as the point of the rental inspections, or to try to force repairs on decrepit properties. That's because state law forces cities to pick target neighborhoods for rental inspection.

In Hopewell, the rental-inspection program focuses on the City Point area and is intended to ensure a neighborhood with lots of rental housing doesn't become blighted, said Fire Chief John Tunstall, who oversees building code inspections there.

In Colonial Heights, George W. Schanzenbacher, planning and community development director, hopes to begin inspecting 20 units a week this winter. There, the aim is to prevent blight in the southern part of the city, where many older homes are rented.

But in Williamsburg, which has run a rental inspection program for four years, building official John Catlett says the program has a big focus on safety. One clear sign: his inspectors find a lot more working smoke detectors.

"Now, landlords are going in and checking before we come," said Catlett, Williamsburg's codes compliance administrator. "They're putting batteries in and testing. . . . They don't want a violation."

. . .

Like all building inspections, officials looking at rental units check for scores of items from the state building code, ranging from how securely handrails are installed to whether plaster on the walls is cracked to wiring, plumbing and the state of beams, columns and joists.

Like the standard inspections, officials can issue orders requiring repairs. If property owners refuse, inspectors can take them to court, which in Williamsburg could mean civil fines of up to $3,000. State law gives cities the option of filing misdemeanor charges, which can mean fines of up to $2,500 and up to 12 months in jail. Officials also have the power to order residents to leave an unsafe building.

Unlike most code enforcement, rental inspection programs such as Williamsburg's and Hopewell's allow inspectors to go inside a property without being invited.

Generally in other kinds of inspections, officials can issue citations based only on what they see from outside or if they are invited inside by a tenant or the property owner.

Responding to complaints is the basic approach the area's largest localities take.

Richmond has started street patrols by building inspectors looking for signs of blight, said city spokesman Linwood Norman. The city, which still has several open positions for inspectors, has started a patrol effort in Church Hill, Jackson Ward and along Hull Street, with plans to expand it citywide.

William D. Dupler, Chesterfield's director of building inspections, said officials have canvassed particular areas on occasion -- including the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor and apartment complexes in Ettrick -- but don't regularly inspect rental units.

Henrico Fire Lt. Gary Hutchison said tenants should feel free to ask to have their homes checked for compliance with fire safety standards. A tenants' invitation is enough to let fire or building officials in, he said.

. . .

In Petersburg, where nearly half of the city's residences are rented, residents are calling for tougher inspections after the Jan. 12 fire on Harrison Street that claimed three children of sisters Hope and Diamond Hazer: John, 16, Na'Tyah, 11, and Mark, 6.

Petersburg fire officials are still investigating that fire but say it appears the smoke detectors didn't work. Family members say the windows in the back bedroom, which was shared by two of the children who died in the fire, had been painted shut. The electricity had been cut off for nonpayment, and the family relied on space heaters to keep the old frame house warm.

Under the state building code, windows must open, smoke detectors must be functioning and space heaters may not be the sole source of heat.

The family's landlord has said he was unaware the power had been cut and that the house met building code standards with no violation notices issued.

City records show he corrected a 2002 electrical hazard violation and a 2001 order to fix the roof, in response to tenant complaints. Complaints of no heat and water in 1998 and 1996 were found to be the fault of the tenants at the time. A 1992 inspection found more than a dozen violations, some of which records show were fixed with the others not noted in inspection reports from the later complaints.

The city decided to take no action on a 2005 neighbors' complaint that a tenant was operating an illegal boarding house in violation of zoning rules rather than the building code.

Residents at a City Council meeting just days after the Harrison Street fire called for a crackdown on building code enforcement, and some have suggested a rental housing inspection program.

"I am very supportive of the idea," said council member Brian A. Moore, referring to rental inspections.

Council member Horace P. Webb said the aging stock of houses that are rented in Petersburg makes the idea worth considering.

But many localities, including Henrico County, feel rental housing is generally new enough and well-maintained, so an inspection program isn't necessary, Henrico building official Greg Revels said.

Others, including Chesterfield County Fire Marshall Robbie Dawson, said inspections are seen as a violation of privacy because "if we go in without your consent, it's an illegal search."

"We feel like we have a handle on these neighborhoods," said Norfolk Building Official Ralston McInnis.

But sometimes, inspectors find real shockers, said Williamsburg's Catlett, remembering one dark basement furnace room in particular.

A pass of a flashlight revealed a badly corroded temperature and pressure valve, the safety device that is supposed to flick open to let out pressure before it builds up enough to make a boiler explode.

"I swung my flashlight up," Catlett said. "Kept going and saw three bricks sitting on top, holding it down."

Contact staff writer David Ress at dress @timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6051.
Contact staff writer Meredith Bonny at mbonny @timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6452.

Hundreds mourn three fire victims

Pain of loss grips family and friends of Petersburg children


Jan 28, 2007

PETERSBURG -- Halfway through the funeral service for his sister, brother and cousin, 6-month-old Damon Hazer started crying.

But the infant was quickly quieted when his older sister, Yorel, who had rescued him from the flames that claimed the lives of three other children, took him in her arms.

Family, friends and hundreds of neighbors gathered yesterday to mourn the deaths of John Quinton Hazer, 16, Na'Tyah Hazer, 11, and Mark Banks Jr., 6. They died when a fire swept through the aging frame home shared by their mothers, Hope and Diamond Hazer, shortly after 2 a.m. on Jan. 12.

Two dozen wreaths in bright colors stretched across the front of the sanctuary at Good Shepherd Baptist Church -- purple letters on a pink ribbon for "Marky-Mark," pink roses framing a photo of a smiling Na'Tyah, and a crimson-and-gold Petersburg High School wrestling team shirt for John, who had won his first tournament victory just days be- fore his death.

"Let not your heart be troubled," read Talaya Rogers, from the Book of John. "I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also."

The choir, often swaying and at times clapping, sang of grace and belief in God. Church members, family and friends talked of the pain of loss and the struggle to understand.

John's grandmother, Gloria Allen, spoke of her pride in Yorel and cousin Michael, who escaped the fire. John was not so lucky.

"God has assured me that he is OK," Allen said.

Good Shepherd's pastor, the Rev. Jeffrey L. Reaves Sr., also sought to comfort family and friends by reminding them of Jesus' words that the kingdom of God belongs to them. He turned to the story about King David's fasting while his child was ailing and his acceptance of God's will after the child's death, and his knowledge that they would be reunited someday.

"The Bible tells that a little child shall lead us. But three children have led us," Reaves said. "They have led us to a place of sobriety, because we realize that life is a serious business. . . . The life and the deaths of these three precious children count for something. The real question is not why has he taken them; the real question is, 'Lord, why did you leave me?'"

Then, Reaves said perhaps God's purpose was to reach someone who had not heard his voice before. The pastor called for any such people to step forward and surrender their lives to God.

About a dozen people came forward, among them a woman in her 30s -- eyes glistening, pink burn scars on her face, both arms wrapped thickly in bandages above her elbows.

She was Diamond Hazer.

Contact staff writer David Ress at dress @timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6051.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Agencies in the Tri-Cities available to assist with energy bills

The Progress-Index

Although the cause of the fire that killed three members of the Hazer family in Petersburg is still under investigation, the tragedy raises questions about the dangers of living in a house without electricity.

Fire officials have said the rental house at 454 Harrison St. had no electric service at the time of the fire. The electric meter had been removed from the house, according to Petersburg Bureau of Fire Division Chief T.C. Hairston.

The Hazers had been lighting their home with candles and heating it with kerosene heaters, Fire Marshal Charlie Moore said.

Throughout Virginia and in the Tri-Cities, there are a number of energy-assistance programs that can help customers on a limited income pay their electric bills.

It is estimated that 30 million families across the country qualify for federal energy assistance, according to the National Fuel Funds Network. But in Fiscal Year 2006, only 5.7 million received heating assistance, and about 485,000 received cooling assistance.

The hardship of paying for electricity has worsened in recent years, said George Coling, executive director of the NFFN.

“Demand [for energy] is going up and poverty is going up, or, at best, remaining the same,” he said. “And energy prices have gone up.”

The government, the Salvation Army and Dominion Virginia Power are just a few entities that can provide aid. Local churches and nonprofit organizations also have funds to help.

“We get a lot of calls [for energy assistance],” said Kim Robertson, health and safety coordinator for the Southside Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, headquartered in Petersburg. “It’s constant. To me, it seems like a continuing thing.”

The Red Cross typically refers callers to the United Way or the 2-1-1 VIRGINIA human services hotline, Robertson said. Many are also seeking assistance with other utility bills or rent.

“We need more programs as far as community-based programs that can help these people,” she said “... Even though we wish we could help them, we just don’t have the funding.”

The Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Alliance for Social Ministry helps residents in the two localities with unexpected financial emergencies.

CCHASM receives about 300 requests each month for assistance, executive director Cathy Stevens said. Needs range from help with utility bills and rent payments to money for medication.

The alliance also operates a food pantry that can offset a client’s expenses so they can pay utilities or rent.

However, CCHASM is not designed to help people who are in chronic financial need, Stevens said. Clients must first be screened to determine if they qualify for CCHASM services.

The screening process can take up to two days.

“People will call us today with a cut-off [notice] for tomorrow,” she said. “We can’t work that fast.”

“It would be wonderful if we could work with our heart all the time, but we don’t have the resources.”

The reason why the electric meter was removed from the Hazers’ home has not been made public.

Dominion Virginia Power spokesman David Botkins refused to comment Friday on the circumstances that led to meter removal by the power company. He declined to discuss the Harrison Street fire specifically.

“Dominion has a long history of commitment in working with its customers when it comes to bill payment,” Botkins said. “Customers are provided opportunities for payment amounts of all sorts and are directed to various avenues of financial assistance when necessary.

“Disconnection of service is a complete and total last resort.”

• Julie Buchanan may be reached at 722-5155 or at jbuchanan@progress-index.com.

©The Progress-Index 2007

Friday, January 19, 2007

Teen recalls fatal fire

Three family members died in Petersburg house fire


PETERSBURG Choking smoke, thicker than fog, filled the darkness. An aunt screamed that she felt flames beneath her feet.

Two children stopped at the window of the old frame house on Petersburg's rundown Harrison Street, the flames behind them.

"I was scared to jump. I didn't want to jump. Then my mom gave me my baby brother. . . . she gave me my brother for a reason . . . so I jumped," said Yorel Hazer, 13, recalling the predawn fire Friday that took the lives of her brother Mark, 6, sister Na'Tyah, 11, and cousin John Hazer, 16.

Hoping to protect her 6-month-old brother, Damon, Yorel twisted as she fell, and her shoulder took the impact of leaping two stories to the ground. "He was crying. I was crying."

Yorel shared her harrowing experience yesterday for the first time with the public at the Red Cross of Petersburg. She was joined by her cousin Michael Hazer, 14.

Behind Yorel, her mother, Diamond Hazer, had turned back toward the flames, trying to fight her way to the other children. Also behind her, Michael hoped the hammering of his fists on his brother John's door would awaken him. He said he was scared because he hadn't seen his younger cousins.

"I couldn't see anything," Michael said yesterday. "I feel like if I saw Mark, I could have picked him up. He was very light."

The six children of sisters Diamond and Hope Hazer made a close-knit extended family in the old frame house at 454 Harrison St. They lived there for more than a year.

Mark was always hanging out with Michael's big brother John. Mark looked up to John, a wrestler and member of the Petersburg High School band, who had dreams of college and a better life.

Na'Tyah loved Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Her favorite color was pink. She and her sister talked about all kinds of things, and Yorel liked helping her with homework.

"It might not have been the best house. But we had good times in it," Yorel said.

Diamond and Hope Hazer tried -- not always successfully -- to make two small paychecks from a local linen and uniform-rental company stretch to cover $600-a-month rent and all the other bills that children and parents rack up. In the weeks before the fire, their electricity had been cut off. They tried to keep the place warm with kerosene heaters. They lit the house with candles.

Mark and Na'Tyah shared a back room where family members say the windows were painted shut. The family said they tried to open them soon after moving into the house in the summer of 2005 but couldn't. They didn't think about it much; there were plenty of other repairs needed, relatives say.

"Our rent man never fixed it up. . . . We had to do everything to try to fix it up," Michael recalled.

Landlord Donatus Amaram did not return three phone calls from The Times-Dispatch yesterday for comment.

Last year, Amaram sued twice to evict the family. In court filings, he said the Hazer sisters hadn't paid the full rent owed for April, May, July and August. He has said he called off a request to the Petersburg Sheriff's Office to evict them after an upset Diamond Hazer told him she had a new baby and nowhere to go.

In interviews over the weekend, Amaram said he didn't know the electricity had been cut off, adding that paying the electric bill was the tenants' responsibility. He also said he installed at least four smoke detectors in the home. A housing inspector, investigating a 2005 complaint that the landlord's former tenant had operated an illegal boarding house in the building, said he recalled seeing detectors.

Petersburg fire officials, who are still investigating the fire, said the alarms apparently didn't work. They don't know why.

Now, out-of-town relatives are trying to help the Hazer sisters get back on their feet. There are three funerals to arrange, and clothes to buy for the children.

Diamond Hazer is still at VCU Medical Center with severe burns to her face and arms. Family members say she had her first skin graft Tuesday. The baby, Damon, is still being treated for smoke inhalation and is doing well.

The family doesn't know what will happen next.

"They didn't have much before. They have nothing now," said Talaya Rogers, a cousin who grew up with Hope and Diamond Hazer in Washington.

The family has set up an account, called the Hazer Fund, at Bank of America, for anyone who wants to help. Financial donations are accepted at any branch. Donations of clothing and other items can be made at the First Baptist Church at 236 Harrison St. from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.

Her shoulder still in a sling, Yorel said she's grateful for the support that has already poured from the community. She brushed off talk that she is a hero. "I just feel like that's what a big sister would do."

Still, with all her clothing, shoes and even her favorite Tweety-Bird toys gone, Yorel said she knows what she wants most:

"For me, a home."

Contact staff writer David Ress at dress @timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6051.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Recognize many of those people are in that picture?

A lot of our Poplar Lawn neighbors were showing their concern Tuesday night.


Progress Index, Jan. 17 2007

Progress Index, Jan. 17 2007, cont.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Petersburg residents call for action to avoid repeat of deadly house fire


Jan 17, 2007

PETERSBURG -- They were saddened by the deaths of three children in a house fire. Angered. Afraid it could happen again.

About 110 Petersburg residents came out to last night's City Council meeting to ask for action.

They suggested tougher enforcement of housing codes. They also asked the city to step in when utilities are cut off, as was the case in the 400 block of South Harrison Street, where a house burned last Friday morning, killing three children and displacing seven family members.

"We drive down the streets, and we see these properties and we think this is somebody else's problem," said resident Phil Cheney.

"There are hundreds of places like Harrison Street in this city," said resident Lloyd Hines.

Mayor Annie M. Mickens promised that the city would do everything it could, saying specifically that it would work with electric, gas and water utilities companies to deal with cutoffs.

The fire early Friday morning killed Na'Tyah Hazer, 11, and her brother Mark Banks Jr., 6, as well as their cousin, John Harper Jr., 16.

Six-month-old Damian Hazer, rescued from the flames by his 13-year-old sister Yorel, remains in the hospital, as does their mother, Diamond Hazer, who suffered severe burns while trying to fight her way through the flames to save the children.

The five other members of the extended family who shared the house have been released from the hospital. Relatives from out of town are trying to help them get back on their feet and have set up a bank account, the Hazer Fund, at Bank of America for anyone who wants to help.

Petersburg fire officials are still investigating the cause of the fire, but they say none of the smoke detectors in the house appears to have worked. Fire Marshal Charles L. Moore Jr. said he is not sure why the smoke detectors failed. A relative of the family who lived in the house said the family had put batteries in the alarms within the past few months.

The landlord, Donatus Amaram, said he installed at least four smoke detectors before Diamond Hazer and her sister, Hope Hazer, moved in last year.

Petersburg housing inspector A.R. Moore Sr. said yesterday that he remembered seeing smoke detectors in April 2005 while investigating a complaint that the property was being operated as an illegal boarding house. At the time, a neighbor had complained that eight people were living there, two to a room, while inspectors found the bedrooms were padlocked, a sign of an illegal boarding house.

The official log sheet of the inspection found that the woman who leased the house from Amaram was charging residents $100 a week per room. City zoning officials decided to take no action. The woman is not one of the Hazer sisters.

A 2002 notice from the city, meanwhile, noted that a repairman was working on the ceiling after a tenant complained that a ceiling fan couldn't be fixed because of a roof problem, while a 2001 letter from the city ordered the roof be repaired.

Contact staff writer David Ress at dress@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6051.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

City Council Meeting

Mayor Mickens, members of City Council, Mr. Canada, family and friends of the Hazers and members of our community:

Historic Poplar Lawn wishes to express our collective grief for the loss of members of our neighborhood last Friday as well as comfort and hope for the Hazer family members, their relatives, friends and neighbors and for our city.

Like of of Petersburg, we are feeling so many motions: loss for members of our community, anger that this tragedy has occurred, fear that it will occur again.

Today we come as a community to you, our city leaders, for guidance. How can we work with the city to stop this from ever occurring again? At a time when we are all quick with speculation and accusations, what can we do to actually make a difference?

We are all responsible for the loss of three young lives in our community; every member of our city is responsible for what happens in our community. Our community is only as strong as our meekest member.

As neighbors to the Hazer family and other members of our community who are living under the same life-threatening conditions, we are responsible for what goes on next door to us.

We ask that Council and the City Manager work with the police, with inspectors, social services, landlords and anyone it takes, and with us, neighborhood organizations and neighbors willing to improve this city and our community, to improve our city and prevent tragedies like the one from which our city is currently suffering.

One house, one block, one neighborhood at a time, the residents of Petersburg are willing to make a difference.

Thank you.


Please Attend City Council Meeting Tonight

Please attend the city council meeting on January 16 at 7:30 pm at the Union Train Station at 103 River Street.

I will be addressing City Council to express our grief for our city and our neighbors and asking for guidance as to how our neighborhood association can best act now and going forward to work with the city to help this from reoccuring.

I would appreciate your supporting me and HPLA by attending the meeting. We are keeping our statement apolitical and friendly, but I feel it is important that we are seen as the sizable and influential body of concerned citizens that we are. Please be there to show our concern for the Hazer family, our neighborhood and our city.

Thank you,

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Vigil for children killed in house fire

Mourners remember three youths lost in Petersburg as joyful, well-mannered


Jan 14, 2007

PETERSBURG -- As neighbors began reciting the 23rd Psalm, sobs shattered the calm of a prayer vigil for three children who died in a fire Friday morning
Click to learn more...

Dozens of people sought comfort yesterday in words about God the shepherd and the hope he watched over the children as they walked through the valley of the shadow of death. They remembered the children as joyful, well-mannered youngsters -- the ones who died and the ones who survived.

Just regular kids.

One of them, 13-year-old Yorel Hazer, broke her shoulder leaping from the flames at 454 Harrison St., protecting her tiny 6-month-old brother Damian from harm as she saved his life, relatives and neighbors said.

The girl had taken the baby from her mother, Diamond Hazer, who returned to the flames to try to save two of her children, 11-year-old Na'Tyah Hazer and her 6-year-old brother Mark Banks Jr.

Diamond Hazer was not successful. She is now in critical condition at VCU Medical Center with burns to her face, arms and legs that may require skin grafts, family members said.

The children's cousin, John Harper Jr., 16, also died in the fire that consumed the home his mother and aunt shared.

Petersburg fire officials, who initially said three boys died, have not released victims' names, pending formal identification by the state medical examiner. Initially some family members gave the family's last name as Hazel.

Seven members of Diamond and Hope Hazer's families survived.

"They were happy-go-lucky kids," said grandfather Johnny Wilson, reminding his wife, Donna Hazer, about how the children would climb over her to greet them as they made one of their regular visits from Washington, where Diamond Hazer and her sister Hope grew up.

"Whenever they saw us, they're out the door running to us."

Yana Denysenko, an exchange student from Ukraine, remembered her deceased Petersburg High School classmate John Harper as a patient friend who would always take time to help her learn about the new country where she now studies.

"He explained really much," she said, eyes tearing.

The fire left the sisters' families with nothing, said Talaya Rogers, a cousin who grew up with the sisters in Washington.

"They need everything. . . . They don't even have a place to go," she said. The family has set up an account, called the Hazer Fund, at Bank of America for anyone who wants to help.

Family members said the sisters have not made funeral arrangements yet and are still unsure of what will happen next. VCU reported that two family members are in critical condition, one is in serious condition and three are in stable condition. A seventh survivor is not in the hospital.

Fire officials believe the fire burned about an hour before the alarm came in.

The owner of the house said he installed at least four smoke detectors before the sisters' families moved in, questioning an early report by the fire marshal that no smoke detector had alerted the family as the fire spread.

Landlord Donatus Amaram said he had no idea that there were 10 people living in the 1,600-square-foot house or that the electricity and gas had been cut off, despite monthly visits to collect rent. He said the sisters were supposed to tell him everyone who lived there, under the terms of their lease.

Amaram said the sisters were behind in rent but that he had canceled a request to the Petersburg sheriff's office to evict them in November, after Diamond Hazer said she had a new baby and didn't know where she would find a place to live.

He said the house had a gas-forced air system and electric baseboards, but he added that if the tenants weren't paying their electricity and gas bills, those systems wouldn't have worked. Amaram said the detectors he had installed were battery-powered and should not have been affected by the electricity cut-off. He said he had received no notices of code violations at the home.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. But no one on Harrison Street can shake the memory of how quickly the fire raged.

Neighbor Charles Cheatham still remembers the long moment of silence when Yorel Hazer jumped free from the fire with her baby brother, and then the sound of the baby's crying.

"If you've got kids," he told the vigil yesterday, "everyday, put your hand on them. . . . Please y'all, stick with your kids. Kiss them."

Contact staff writer David Ress at dress @timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6051.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A sad day for our neighborhood

Times Dispatch Article

ETERSBURG --As she jumped from the second-floor porch just before the flames engulfed it, the 13-year-old girl called back to three boys to follow her.

They didn't.

The boys -- 15, 11 and 6 -- perished in yesterday's early-morning fire in a rundown Petersburg neighborhood. The other seven members of the extended family were treated at VCU Medical Center for burns and smoke inhalation, which they suffered in the 2 a.m. fire that turned the city's sky orange.

Fire safety tips

Fatal fires
T he house had no smoke detectors and no electrical service, Petersburg Fire Marshal Charles L. Moore Jr. said.

Fire officials would not release the victims' names, pending formal identification by the state medical examiner, but friends and family members said they were among the seven children of Hope and Diamond Hazel, sisters who had rented the old frame house on South Harrison Street for the past year.

If the husband of one of the two women hadn't happened to awaken sometime shortly after 2 a.m., the tragedy could have been even worse, Moore said.

"The room was already pretty well charred by then," he said.

The husband's shouts roused the family, Moore said. One sister escaped the flames with her 6-month-old baby in her arms. The other woman followed.

A 14-year-old boy, after trying to fight his way through a ball of fire upstairs to reach the three younger boys, jumped from the second-floor porch. The 13-year-old girl followed, breaking her arm as she fell.

She was the last to escape.

"They were such nice little children," said neighbor Mattie Glass, whose great-grandchildren Alyicia Ward and Christopher Latimer knew the victims.

Glass dabbed two trails of tears running down 11-year-old Alyicia's cheeks. "I've never seen so much fire," Glass said. "It didn't just burn. It was engulfed."

Two doors down, a stone-faced Samy Artis, 13, slumped in a porch chair. "They was my friends," he said. "We used to ride bikes."

Neighbors called 911 at about 2:20 a.m. after seeing the front porch in flames.

"I saw them when they were jumping," said neighbor Charles Cheatham, who was almost too distraught to speak. "I was shocked."

Moore, the fire marshal, said he believes the fire -- which started in a first-floor front room that the family used as a bedroom had been burning for about an hour at that point.

"I saw the porch burning and called 911," said neighbor Theophilus Bland. "By the time I got back to the front, the whole top was burning. . . . It was so quick. Just up in flames, all the way up to the sky."

When firefighters from the nearby Market Street station swung open the garage doors to respond, they say the flames filled the sky, Battalion Chief Doug Ford said.

Emergency medical technicians immediately sent the two sisters and the 6-month-old baby to VCU Medical Center. The 13- and 14-year-olds and husband went to Southside Regional Medical Center, just a few blocks away, but were quickly helicoptered to VCU's trauma center because of the extent of their injuries. The seventh survivor was an adult male who left the scene but later checked himself in at VCU Medical Center. They were treated for smoke inhalation and burns, with some still in critical condition hours after the blaze was put out.

Firefighters scrambled to the duplex next door, waking residents and leading them to safety.

"It could have been me, fast as it was burning," said next-door neighbor Larry Cole, one of six people evacuated from the duplex.

By the time firefighters put out the fire in the Hazel sisters' home, about 45 minutes after responding to the alarm, it had burned one side wall of the duplex across a six-foot driveway and sent flames shooting through the length of that building's attic.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the Hazel sisters' home was gone. All that remained of the house by late morning was some blackened lumber and a leaning front chimney, with twisted bedsprings and bicycles scattered about.

Donatus Amaram, a Virginia State University marketing and management professor, has owned the house since 1991, one of a dozen rental houses he owns in Petersburg. He said he was unaware of how many people were living in the house and that it had no electricity.

It was the second fatal fire in that block of Harrison Street in less than two years. In June 2005, a fire killed one of seven residents who shared an aging frame home. In November, another fatal fire claimed a life in the Battersea area.

"As many of these as I've been to, you never get used to it," Moore said.

Contact staff writer David Ress at dress @timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6051.
Times-Dispatch staff writer Paige Mudd and rewrite editor Mary Goodwyn contributed to this report.