3 children, grandmother killed in mobile home fire in Oceanway
Updated On: Jun 18 2014 07:54:00 PM EDT
A 53-year-old woman and her three grandchildren -- ages 10 months, 2 and 4 -- are dead following a fire late Tuesday afternoon at an Oceanway mobile home. A fourth child was treated for injuries and is now out of the hospital.
The victims were identified as Sheila Swearingen, 53; Janet Fowler, 10 months; Rachel Fowler, 2; and Richard "Bubba" Fowler Jr., 4.
The fire tore through a double-wide mobile home about 5:40 p.m. Tuesday. Jacksonville Fire Rescue officials said Swearingen and one child died at the scene on Palmetto Street. Family members said two other children died a short time later at a hospital.
(Pictured: Richard and Jennifer Fowler with their
three oldest children, Hattie, Richard Jr. and Rachel)
Six-year-old Hattie Fowler was rescued by a boy who saw the fire when he was riding his bike. She was in good condition at Wolfson Children's Hospital and was released Wednesday.
"My heart? Pain. It won't go away," said Jennifer Fowler, the children's mother and the daughter of Swearingen. "I don't how I'm going to deal with it. No, I don't think I can. But I know I'm going to be there for Hattie. The family's keeping together on this."
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the Fire Marshal's Office are investigating but do not suspect foul play.
IMAGES: Fire destroys home, takes 4 lives
Funeral expenses donation account at EverBank: 0010021914
Routing No. 063092110
Ashley Carr, a spokeswoman for the Fire Marshal's Office, said investigators learned Wednesday the origin of the fire was in the bedroom adjacent to the living room. She said that is not the room the grandma and infant Janet were in. They were in the master bedroom.
Carr doesn't believe anyone was in the room that caught fire, but she couldn't say for certain.
"My mom come out the room," Jennifer Fowler said. "She said she smelled smoke and then she opened the playroom where the two younger kids were at. She seen the fire and says she was just trying to get them out, and then the Fire Marshal said it was one big boom."
Investigators said K-9 dogs did not alert them to any accelerants. They are still working with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office homicide unit to determine the cause of the fire.
Investigators also do not believe the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. They are hoping to get a better idea of the cause after talking to Hattie and by autopsy results.
It's unclear if there was a smoke detector in the home.
“This is a tragic case in all manner, but the community really stepped up and tried to do the best they could do," JFRD Chief Martin Senterfitt said. "There's tragedy and there's heroics involved.”
UNCUT: Fire Chief Martin Senterfitt
JFRD investigators said the children's parents, Richard and Jennifer Fowler, were incarcerated at the time.
Richard Fowler (pictured on left), 54, was arrested Saturday on charges of child neglect, possession of a controlled substance and resisting an officer without violence. His bond was set at $17,500. He was released at 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Jennifer Fowler (pictured on right), 31, has been in jail since March 13, when she was arrested for violating her probation. Her previous charges include making a false report to law enforcement in December 2013, domestic battery in September 2013, and disorderly intoxication, public disturbance and criminal mischief in August 2012. She is now on home detention.
The parents were told of the fire tragedy by jail staff Tuesday night and were later released from jail on various conditions.
The four children were being cared for by their grandparents in the parents' mobile home, investigators said. The grandfather was not at the mobile home at the time of the fire.
"My mom was a great woman," Jennifer Fowler said. "She helped me out with them babies any time I needed help. She was actually down there trying to help get their clothes up and get them some snacks and stuff for them. And then, just caught on fire and she tired to get them in. She tried to save their life."
"Bubba, he was my little Mr. Cleaner, worker. He loved to help his daddy in the shed. He loved to help clean," Jennifer Fowler added. "Rachel, she was just a mommy's girl. She wanted me all the time. Janet was just starting to sit up. She broke her first tooth. I told her she was going to be the unique one because all of them have blonde hair and she come out with the brown hair."
Robert Pritchard (pictured below) was the 13-year-old who pulled Hattie Fowler from the burning home.
"All of a sudden I saw the girl hold the curtain back, and there was a fire behind her and she was banging on the window," Pritchard said.
He said he went in the front door and hopped over a baby gate.
"I went in the room and grabbed her, and then right when I got outside she said, 'My brothers and sisters are in there,'" Pritchard said. "And by the time I got outside the whole house was on fire."
"I think I saved a life, but I think I could've done more. That's it," he added.
Pritchard said he tried to go back in the home.
"I seen a room that didn't have smoke in it, and I busted the window and I tried to get in there, and then all of a sudden the smoke went poof in the whole room and I had to jump back out," he said. "I was so close from getting in the back window."
Pritchard said he ran home to get his dad and call 911. Firefighters arrived four minutes later.
The children's grandfather and aunt thanked Pritchard at the home on Wednesday for saving Hattie.
"There was no way I could get in," witness Jason Deraway said. "All you could hear was screaming; it was just horrible."
Deraway said he checked a few doors but the handles were hot, and he tried to get in to help the people trapped inside, but the flames were just too intense.
“It was pretty hot, so I went ahead and kicked a door with my foot, so as I kicked the door open, flames came shooting out,” Deraway said. "I know I heard the word help. 'Help me' at least three or four times. I don't believe I heard any kids screaming, but she (the grandmother) was screaming at the top of her lungs. You can't really explain, just a gut feeling you don't want to feel, someone screaming for help, knowing you can't help them."
He said he ran to the front door, but it was too late.
Senterfitt said he's concerned about the emotional trauma his firefighters went through after responding to the horrific fire.
With so many kids being pulled from the fire, many of these firefighters, who are parents themselves, along with neighbors in Oceanway, are struggling.
"The concern we have now is investigation," Senterfitt said. "And more of the professional concern of mine is the well-being of the firefighters who responded. It was a very heartfelt event, so now we're going to make sure our firefighters psychologically are ready to deal with the stress involved."
Animal Control picked up two of the family's dogs from the home on Wednesday. It said it was going to give surviving family members a few days to take the dogs before they put them up for adoption.
A donation account has been created at EverBank in the names of the Fowler children to help with funeral expenses. The account number is 0010021914.
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