CHICAGO – From her window, Kizzie Edwards often would see the Ramirez children playing on their back porch, some of them tapping out tunes on a miniature xylophone.
"I used to wave to one of the little girls every morning," Edwards said. "I can't believe I can't do that anymore."
A fire swept through the Ramirez family's third-floor apartment on the city's North Side early Sunday, killing six children — five from the same family — and injuring three others and the family's mother.
The fire, Chicago's deadliest in years, may have been caused by a candle used for light in an apartment without electricity, officials said.
"This is the largest multiple fire fatality we've had from a single fire in quite a few years. I mean it's children. It's difficult for everyone involved," said a visibly shaken Fire Commissioner Raymond Orozco.
The three-bedroom apartment in the Rogers Park neighborhood had no smoke detectors, he said. The apartment hadn't had electricity since May, said John Dewey, a spokesman for utility Commonwealth Edison. He wouldn't say why it was turned off, citing confidentiality rules.
The fire broke out just after midnight, authorities said.
"The mother came running out with one child in her arms, screaming to the neighbors that there were other children inside," said Cmdr. Will Knight. "They asked her how many and she said `eight."'
Neighbor Derrell Dixon said two children appeared at a window and he and several other people held up a blanket, trying unsuccessfully to get them to jump to safety.
"The kids were screaming and screaming 'Help! Help! We're burning, we're burning!"' said Dixon, 22. He said he saw firefighters rescue one of the children with a ladder.
Another neighbor, Al Tillman, raced up the stairs, crawled inside the smoke-filled home and pulled a small, crying boy to safety. Afterward, thoughts of the boy's dead siblings haunted him.
"I'm shaken up because the other children didn't make it," the 32-year-old Tillman said. "I only heard one child. I wish I could have saved the others."
Firefighters found most of the children huddled in the apartment's front room, not far from the spot where the fire probably started, said fire department spokesman Larry Langford.
The dead were identified by the Cook County Medical Examiner's office as Vanessa Ramirez, 14; Eric Ramirez, 12; Suzette Ramirez, 10; Idaly Ramirez, 6; and Kevin Ramirez, 3. The sixth, Escarlet Ramos, 3, was being baby-sat by the Ramirez family, friends said.
Rosario Fordley, a nursing supervisor at Thorek Memorial Hospital, said the 40-year-old mother and a 3-month-old girl were discharged after being treated for smoke inhalation. Two other children were at other hospitals and their conditions were not immediately released.
A friend of one of the Ramirez children said their mother originally was from Mexico but the family had been in the United States for at least 16 years.
Throughout the day, neighbors and friends of the victims left bouquets of flowers, as well as teddy bears and dolls, under the charred-black window of the gutted apartment. Dozens of area residents gathered on sidewalks outside the building, some of them crying and hugging each other; others just pointed at the scene, shaking their heads.
One of the most recent deadly fires involving children was one on March 29 that killed four children and seriously injured two adults on the city's southwest side. A preliminary investigation suggested the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. The home had no working smoke detectors.
On Sunday, about a dozen firefighters handed out free smoke detectors in a two-block area around the apartment building.
"The community is in shock," Jasmin Lamb, 16, said tearily as she placed pink and white carnations on the sidewalk near the apartment. "They were a nice, warm family."