HOPE MILLS, N.C. – A decorated Green Beret leapt from the second-story of his burning home early Tuesday, wrapped himself in a blanket and ran back inside in an attempt to save his two young daughters.
Firefighters recovered the body of Chief Warrant Officer Edward Cantrell on the second floor of his North Carolina home, not far from the remains of 6-year-old Isabella and 4-year-old Natalia.
"He never made it back out," said Debbie Tanna, spokeswoman for the Cumberland County sheriff's office.
Cantrell's wife and the girl's mother, Louise, also jumped from the second floor. She was treated and released from a Fayetteville hospital for smoke inhalation. The family dog, a Rottweiler named Sasha, also survived the fire.
Cantrell was a special forces paratrooper who served six tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Friends and relatives gathered to recover what they could from burned-out house in Hope Mills, a small community about a 20-minute drive from the gates of Fort Bragg.
The house, which featured a broad front porch with tall columns, was built in 1920. Tanna said the old home's timbers were likely very dry, causing a fast-moving blaze. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
A sign at the end of the driveway blocked with yellow police tape says "The Cantrells Est. Feb. 7, 2004." Bouquets of flowers and two teddy bears had been placed nearby.
Firefighters from Cotton Volunteer Fire Department, which is less than two miles away, were on the scene within four minutes of receiving the dispatch call. Assistant Chief Kevin Dove said the house was already engulfed in flames.
"They perished before our arrival," said Dove, a veteran firefighter. "It was horrible."
Cantrell, 36, was a member of the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg. He held the rank of chief warrant officer 2, which authorized Cantrell to lead half of his 12-member Green Beret team if it was split up, said Lt. Col. April Olsen, a spokeswoman for Army Special Forces Command.
Records show Cantrell joined the Army in 1994, listing a home address in Plant City, Fla. He had one combat deployment to Iraq and five to Afghanistan, returning from the last mission in August, Olsen said.
His record included four Bronze Stars and one Purple Heart, awarded for wounds suffered in a war zone, Olsen said.
"There are no words to express the sorrow felt in our close-knit community when a family suffers such a tragedy," the command said on its Facebook page.
Family members declined interview requests, as did a soldier who served with Cantrell.
Isabella attended nearby Ed V. Baldwin Elementary School. Principal Todd Yardis said the girl's teacher and a grief counselor broke the news of what happened to her classmates shortly after they arrived in the morning.
Yardis said both Cantrell parents had been very active at the school, with Edward Cantrell sometimes stopping by in his Army uniform. He recounted how excited the young girl was when her father returned home from his most recent tour of duty.
"Bella was a very happy, loving girl," Yardis said. "She was one of those students who would run up and hug you around the leg when you passed her class in the hall."
Yardis said Cantrell was a hero for trying to save his girls. The father had recently spoken about retiring from the service, rather than returning overseas and being separated from his family again.
"He talked about wanting to get out of the military and opening his own business," Yardis said. "He wanted to open a tattoo parlor."
Cindy Jacobs, who works at an assisted living home next door, said Louise Cantrell ran to the facility during the fire to get the staff to call 911. Jacobs said she knew the family, especially the mother, who would often stop to make small talk as she drove by. The two girls were often in the car or outside playing.
"She was with those girls all the time," said Jacobs, the executive director of the ARC of Hope Mills. "It's so sad. I can't imagine what she's going through."
Jacobs said she learned Edward Cantrell was in the military when investigators visited to ask about him as part of the procedure for getting a top secret security clearance.
"We knew he was Special Forces," Jacobs said. "He was just a heck of a guy. Very, very friendly."
The girls were energetic children, said Jacobs, who has an active-duty son in the Navy and whose husband is a civilian employee at Fort Bragg. "They were just adorable little girls," she said.