HARTSVILLE, S.C. — Gruesome tragedy visited a Hartsville neighborhood Wednesday when four small children — twin 1-year-old girls and two brothers, ages 3 and 4 — died in mobile home fire at their residence on Depot Street.
Hartsville firefighters received the fire call at 1:53 p.m. and were en route to the address in the 800 block of Depot within a minute, said Hartsville public information officer Russell Cox. When firemen arrived at 1:57 p.m., the structure was heavily involved in fire.
Hartsville Mayor Mel Pennington, who is also a volunteer fireman, was among the first to arrive. He said Capt. Jason Bell of C Company was the first in, but the ferocity of the fire prevented a rescue.
“We tried to get in there and get them out as soon as we could, but they were gone before we could get to them,” said Pennington. “It’s the worst thing in the world when innocent, sweet children lose their life.”
About 15 firefighters or first responders were on the scene.
Civilians tried to battle the blaze on their own before firefighters arrived.
A neighbor, who asked to not be identified, said she heard a loud boom and went outside and saw the fire. She ran toward the mobile home thinking she might be able to get the children out, but flames began to shoot through the window. She then called 911 while another neighbor attempted to fight the fire, unsuccessfully, with a garden hose.
“There wasn’t anything I could do,” said the neighbor. “It started burning too fast.”
Firefighters had the fire controlled within 10 minutes and found the children as they conducted a search of the mobile home.
Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee said that the identities of the children will not be released until Thursday. Determining the cause will take a bit longer. Hardee said the bodies were sent to Newberry for autopsies. The autopsy results are expected back Thursday afternoon.
Fire and criminal investigators were digging in for a long night Wednesday as the sun went down, bringing in at least one light tower to illuminate the scene. Investigation into the fire is being conducted by the Darlington County Sheriff's Office and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division – standard procedure in fires that involve multiple deaths, Darlington County Sheriff Wayne Byrd said.
In addition to the State Law Enforencement Division agents, a K-9 unit from Horry County is expected to aid with the investigation, Byrd said.
It was not clear Wednesday why a group of young children were in the home alone, or even if they were. Asked about the whereabouts of the mother, Byrd said she was in the yard in front of the home when firefighters arrived, but he did not elaborate. He said the mother was speaking to investigators Wednesday afternoon and evening. He said he did not know if any charges will be filed.
Byrd also said he could not say how long the investigation might take.
Police cordoned off the area as people watched from a distance. Neighbors, some sitting on their porch and others standing in their yards holding children, talked quietly and glimpsed passed ambulances and fire trucks, hoping to get a glimpse of the scene.
“This is so sad,” said one man.
The group continued to grow as time passed and word spread. A knot of friends and family were gathered around Theresa Mason, the children’s grandmother. Another family member, Renika Pendergrass, collapsed to the ground when she arrived at the scene and heard about the tragedy.
In the small neighborhood just outside of downtown Hartsville, broken-hearted neighbors and family could be heard wailing and moaning as investigators worked at the scene, more than an hour after the fire began. More and more people kept arriving on the scene. Women clutched their babies, and everyone waited on more information.
Byrd said Hartsville Fire Department's chaplain has been brought in to counsel any responders who need it. The Red Cross has also been called in.
It was a tough day, said Byrd.
“It’s a bad situation any time there is a fatality involved in a fire, but it’s worse when there are children involved.” said Byrd. “This is about as bad as it gets.”
Pennington, who has helped guide Hartsville through a number of tragedies during his official tenure, said the town will have to come together once again.
“This is a resilient community,” said Pennington. “This family will be embraced by the people of Hartsville. We are a strong town. Hartsville can and will recover from this tragedy.”
Morning News staff members Ardie Arvidson, Rebecca J. Ducker, Justin Johnson, Matt Robertson and Bob Sloan contributed to this report.