An early morning fire that tore through a day care in Erie, Pennsylvania, and claimed the lives of five young children Sunday may not have been so deadly had the home been equipped with more smoke detectors, authorities said.
"If there were the proper amount of smoke detectors in this structure, then most, if not all, would have survived," Erie Fire Chief Guy Santone told CNN. The victims ranged in age from 8 months to about 8 years old, Santone said.
Only one smoke detector was found in the attic of the clapboard house located about two miles from downtown Erie, Santone told CNN and local media outlets. The home's address matches a listing for Harris Family Daycare, a certified 24-hour child-care provider, according to records from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
Eight people were inside the single-family home when the fire broke out shortly after 1 a.m. on Sunday, WJET-TV reported.
Danika Scott, who lives next door to the house, told the Erie Times-News that she spotted the flames from her window and called for help.
"That fire was just nuts . . . nuts," Scott said.
By the time firefighters arrived on scene, flames were already shooting out of all the first-floor windows, Santone told WJET-TV.
"Reports were in that there were children trapped on the second floor," the fire chief said.
While some firefighters immediately started battling the blaze, Santone said others climbed up the side of the burning building, using ladders to reach the home's second-floor bedrooms.
Of the five children who were pulled from the house, four were siblings, the Times-News reported. Authorities have not yet identified the victims.
Valerie Lockett-Slupski told the newspaper that her four grandchildren - two boys and two girls, aged 8, 6 and 4 years old, and 10 months old - were staying at the day care because their parents worked overnight. The family had used the child-care service for almost a year, Lockett-Slupski said.
"So we are all at a loss, trying to figure out how this happened," she said.
The homeowner's child also died, Santone told CNN.
The homeowner and two teenagers managed to escape the blaze, but were injured, Santone said. A neighbor who tried to run into the house and help with the rescue also suffered injuries, WJET-TV reported.
Santone told WJET-TV that the woman who lived at the home ran through the fire to get out, adding "she had burned her lungs and probably didn't realize that."
"She drove herself to the hospital and on the way to the hospital, she crashed her car," he said.
Erie Chief Fire Inspector John Widomski told the Times-News that authorities believe the fire started on the home's first floor in the front living room area. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation, but Santone told Erie News Now that an electrical overload is suspected.
Pennsylvania code requires day-care facilities run out of private residences to have a smoke detector on each floor and in the basement. Alarms from detectors should be audible to people inside the home even when all doors are closed, the code states.
Records show that Harris Family Daycare was last inspected for a license renewal in December 2018 and found to be compliant. The inspection did not mention any concerns with fire safety.
According to Erie News Now, first responders appeared to be attempting to revive the children as they were wheeled away from the scene on stretchers. In a Facebook post, the fire department wrote that it was "a very tough night."
"We offer our deepest sympathies to all effected by this horrible tragedy and we keep the survivors in our thoughts and prayers," the fire department wrote in another post.
Photos and videos of the fire's aftermath showed the charred house roped off with yellow police tape. Curled strips of vinyl siding hung limply from the home's exterior and nearly all of the windows were missing. A scorched lime green stroller sat abandoned by the front porch. Nearby, a child's toy car was parked in the grass.
On Sunday, a small makeshift memorial was erected outside the house. Three colorful balloons were left tethered to costume butterfly wings beside a growing collection of stuffed animals.
"Our hearts go out to the loved ones who lost someone in this terrible fire," Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said in a statement to Erie News Now. "I ask my fellow citizens to join me in praying for those dealing with this horrible tragedy."
Before the fire, Harris Family Daycare had been operating in Erie for nearly 20 years, Erie News Now reported in May 2018. Elaine Harris, the facility's owner, told the news station that caring for children was what she was "meant to do." It is unclear if Harris was the woman injured in the blaze as authorities did not identify her.
"This is why I am here," Harris told Erie News Now last year. "I like to get them in early, teach them, instill in them their values before they get out there in the world. This just what I do."
The day care could not be reached for comment late Sunday and it is not known if the owners have legal representation.