NEWNAN, Ga. (AP) — A woman and four young children died early Saturday as a fire engulfed a home in west Georgia, and authorities said only an 11-year-old girl who was woken by her mother escaped. The woman died trying to save the remaining children.
Firefighters were alerted at 1:17 a.m. Saturday to the blaze at the single-story home in Newnan, about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Georgia state Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens ruled that the fire was accidental and appeared to have originated in an electrical panel in the home's den area, said Glenn Allen, the commissioner's spokesman.
The fire killed Alonna T. McCrary, 27, as well as her 5-year-old daughter Eriel McCrary and 2-year-old daughter Nikia White, according to Allen. Two other children — Messiah White, 3, and McKenzie Florence, 2 — also died. Allen said the two were sleeping over at the home.
A fifth child, 11-year-old Nautica McCrary, escaped the burning home and was taken to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. Allen said she has since been released.
Newnan police Chief Buster Meadows said the older girl's mother was able to get her safely out of the burning house.
"The mother woke her up and told her to run," Meadows said. "There was someone outside who she ran to, and the mother went back after the others. Neither her nor the other four children made it out."
By the time firefighters arrived, Meadows said, the house was completely engulfed in flames.
Neighbor Jemeka Beadles said McCrary's running back into the home was a testament to the kind of mother she was.
"She did what any woman would do in that situation," Beadles said.
Beadles said Eriel had recently graduated from pre-kindergarten. "Her mom had just put all her little graduation pictures on Facebook with her cap and gown on," she said. "It seems unreal, it just seems so unreal."
McCrary's cousin, Tamara Terrell, said she had lived in the house for nearly four years before McCrary moved in. Terrell cried as she sat with others across the street and recalled having problems with the home's gas and electrical system before she moved out in January. Terrell said McCrary moved into the house the next month.
But landlord Glenn Marlowe, of Moreland, said, "There was never an electrical problem in the house, period." He said he hadn't owned the home for very long and couldn't provide additional information.
Coweta County property records show that the landlord's wife, Peggy Marlowe, has owned the house since March 2011. Tax records list her as the owner of six residential properties in the county, including the house where she and her husband live in Moreland.
Firefighters found the charred remains of a smoke detector inside the home but it was unclear whether the device worked, Allen said.
The burned house was still surrounded by yellow tape 12 hours after the fire. Its brick walls were charred and the roof had gaping holes exposing the rafters. Soot covered a car parked in the driveway.
Before noon, friends and relatives had started a makeshift memorial of items left beside the mailbox. Neighbors tied a cluster of balloons— one reading "We Love You" — to the mailbox and left candles, teddy bears and a small cross. A pair of bicycles, one pink and one purple, also had been left near the growing memorial. One neighbor used spray paint to write a Bible verse on a blanket, then left it on the lawn.
Neighbors said the fire devastated the close-knit community, but they vowed to stay strong for the surviving child and for one another.
"We're country folks. We did a lot of things together — raised our kids together, played together, we cry together, we eat together," Belinda Beasely said. "We don't have that much, but we learn to love each other and appreciate what we got."
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.