NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The deaths of three children, their mother and grandmother in a New Orleans house fire Tuesday stunned a community of neighbors that included students and staff at the school the young victims attended just steps away from their front door.
"All good kids. No problems. I hate for them to go like that," said Laurent "Coco" Paige, a 63-year-old neighbor who witnessed the fire and was visibly shaken by the deaths. He shook his head as he sat on his porch swing, waving to neighbors and school workers Tuesday morning.
The victims were Martha Anderson, 77, and her grandchildren, Jade Anderson, 12; Jason Anderson, 11; and Jala Anderson, 7. The mother was identified as 33-year-old Christina Squire.
The fire happened across the corner from Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in the Broadmoor neighborhood. The badly charred house added to the blight that still pocks some blocks of the recovering area more than nine years after Hurricane Katrina. An abandoned house with a collapsing roof sits nearby and boarded up windows are visible at a house down the street.
Fire Chief Timothy McConnell said the fire was reported around 12:15 a.m. Tuesday and that the house was engulfed in flames when firefighters reached the house.
He said the children's father, Derrick Anderson, escaped the blaze and tried to re-enter the house to rescue the family, but the flames blocked his way. He was not injured. He walked around the outside of the house throughout the morning, stunned, saying little as neighbors sought to comfort him.
Firefighters said Anderson identified himself as the mother's boyfriend and said the house did not have smoke detectors.
McConnell said the grandmother's body was found in a first-floor bedroom and the mother and children were found in a second-floor bedroom.
Fire Department spokesman Michael Williams said it appears the fire started on the first floor in the rear of the metal-sided, two-story yellow home. Williams said it took firefighters about an hour and a half to bring the fire under control.
"The staff, the principal, are just crushed," said David Winkler-Schmit, president of the association that runs the school, which serves grades K-8. "The family has lived in the Broadmoor neighborhood for over 40 years."
The children's father and uncle attended Wilson and their grandmother once worked in the cafeteria before she retired, Paige said.
Logan Crowe, the school principal, said the mother was a model parent and the three children were adored by the other students. The children were in 3rd, 6th and 7th grades.
"She was here every day. You could have thought she worked here," Crowe said about Squire.
"They are part of the framework of the school," Crowe said. "In all sincerity, these were three of the nicest kids you could have in a school."
Paige said Jala was an aspiring track and field athlete who often ran home from school and "just kept on running." He said Jade was a cheerleader and enjoyed working in the school garden while Jason was fond of playing video games.
But the person Paige recalled most vividly was the grandmother, Martha Anderson. Since moving into the neighborhood in 2000, Paige said he often sat on a porch with her talking away an evening. "If she were here right here now, we'd be over there on her porch talking," he said.
Paige said the family had lived in the same house for 52 years. He said the street was badly flooded when the levees broke during Katrina, with filthy black water reaching the height of a light above his front door on his raised porch.
Paige and City Council member LaToya Cantrell said Martha Anderson and her family sheltered in the Wilson school building after the neighborhood was flooded. He also said the Andersons were among the first to return to the street to rebuild, about 16 months after the storm.
"She was a good lady, a good lady," he repeated time and again. "She was laid back. A good lady."
Associated Press writer Bill Fuller in New Orleans contributed to this report.