TOLEDO, Ohio – Joe Jaramillo climbed the staircase with smoke searing his eyes and the cries of seven trapped children ringing in his ears. But he couldn't get any closer.
"They were yelling 'Help us!' but I couldn't do anything. I had to come back for air," he said.
The youngsters died after a fire broke out in a Toledo apartment Sunday afternoon. The victims — six girls and one boy — were between 6 months and 7 years old.
Firefighters arrived about a minute after receiving an emergency call, but met heavy flames on a staircase as they fought to reach the victims, Chief Michael Bell said. They contained the fire quickly after pulling the children out, he said.
Jaramillo ran into the two-story building and tried to get upstairs where the children were trapped, as the mother of some of the children stood outside screaming that her babies were inside. Jaramillo, 36, said he had been visiting his daughter in the area.
No adults were injured, but five of the children died at hospitals soon after the blaze, authorities said. A sixth child died several hours later and the seventh died early Monday, a spokeswoman for St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center (search) said.
Bell said no adults were in the building when firefighters arrived. It was unclear if adults were inside when the blaze broke out. The cause of the fire had not been determined.
Jaramillo said the father of one of the children had tried to go upstairs with a fire extinguisher, "but it didn't work." He and the father tried to go up the stairs a second time, but the smoke and flames were too thick.
"Then it was just quiet," Jaramillo said.
The Lucas County (search) coroner's office said Monday it had not completed identifying the victims. Neighbors said the woman who lived in the apartment with her children also had two sisters who live in the apartment complex.
Three of the children were students at Reynolds Elementary School (search), said school district spokeswoman Jane Bruss.
Relatives of the victims who gathered outside the hospital Sunday night declined to comment.
Nearly all the fire damage was limited to one apartment and the roof of the two-story brick apartment building, which contained five units, said Battalion Chief Mark Klein.
Outside the complex, Halloween decorations remained in the front yard and paper cutout bats were taped to the front window.
Clay Neal, 32, who lived in the apartment next to the victims', said the children were always outside riding bikes and playing games. He arrived just as paramedics were taking a baby out of the building on a stretcher.
"It just brings tears to my eyes because all of the kids didn't make it," Neal said.