PEDRO, Ohio – Kyle Whitmer jumped from a second-story balcony as flames swallowed his mother's 12-bedroom home, then ran to the door to try to save some of the 11 relatives and friends who were living there.
Four women — including Whitmer's 21-year-old sister — and an 8-month-old boy died in the fire, Ohio's deadliest this year, state fire marshal's office spokesman Shane Cartmill said. Whitmer's mother and five others made it out with burns and smoke inhalation as the fire turned the home into ash.
The fire started early Monday morning near a space heater on the first floor where Whitmer's mother, 52-year-old Kathy Whitmer, kept her plants — some aloe, a cactus. The state fire marshal said the blaze was accidental, and authorities hadn't officially identified the people inside.
Green leaves wilted at the edge of the blackened foundation as Kyle Whitmer, 20, sifted through the ashes Monday afternoon. Charred wooden beams poked into the air where walls once stood at the rural southern Ohio house, and melted siding resembled tattered cloth.
As firefighters hacked away at the smoldering remains, a green garden hose stretched out into the front lawn — a futile attempt to put out the flames in an area without fire hydrants.
Whitmer opened a tarnished storage cabinet in search of photographs, maybe of his sister.
"There's nothing left," said Whitmer, wearing camouflage overalls and hiking boots a neighbor lent him after the fire, as he shoved his hands in his pockets.
Kathy Whitmer bought the house in 2004, auditor's records show, in what her son says was a foreclosure sale.
What's left of the home lies at the bottom of a valley in Elizabeth Township, about 15 miles north of Ashland, Ky., near where Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia meet.
This was Whitmer's mother's dream home — a place where she could live with her family, friends and even friends of friends.
"She'd do about anything for everybody," Whitmer said. "She told them if they were having problems, come out here."
She burned her feet as she ran through the house trying to warn people.
Whitmer's sister Rachel is dead. She would have been 22 this December.
"She was a firecracker when she wanted to be, but she was loving," he said.
The Whitmers lived in the home with Kyle's girlfriend and her mother, Rachel's boyfriend and friends who had fallen on hard times. Kyle Whitmer said the 8-month-old who died was the son of a woman dating one of his friends.
Regina Besco, who lives in a trailer next door, said the fire "was awful."
"There were family members outside knowing they couldn't get inside to their loved ones," she said. "There was nothing they could do but watch it get worse and worse until it was engulfed in flames. It was terrible, and my heart went out to them."
Besco said two men pounded on her door around 1:30 a.m., told her their house was on fire and asked her to call 911.
"The smoke was rolling out of there," Besco said. "There was no way anyone could have gone back in there. They would have died themselves."
The people who made it out of the fire were taken to a hospital in Kentucky. Kyle Whitmer said some had burns and others had inhaled smoke but all were expected to be OK.
Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman and JoAnne Viviano in Columbus and Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.