HOUSTON (AP) — As a Houston home day care filled with choking smoke and flames last year, neighbors tried desperately to rush in and rescue the seven children who had been left alone and were trapped inside.
Day care owner Jessica Tata was screaming "the kids are burning" as neighbor John Chestnut got on his hands and knees and crawled into the home, Chestnut testified Friday at Tata's felony murder trial. Four of the children died in the blaze, while three others were seriously injured.
Chestnut, 21, said he could hear the children as he went through a back door and crawled through the kitchen. "All I hear is screaming, babies crying. I couldn't tell where they were at all," Chestnut said. "I was calling out for them. It's all I could do."
Ultimately, Chesnut was forced to turn back as smoke filled his mouth and he couldn't breathe.
Prosecutors at Tata's trial used testimony from neighbors as well as emotional 911 calls in which children could be heard crying to detail for jurors the frantic efforts that were made in February 2011 to try to save the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
Investigators have said Tata, 24, left the children alone at her home while she went shopping at a nearby Target store when the fire broke out. Investigators say the blaze was sparked by oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner that had been left on.
Tata's attorneys argue she never intended to hurt the children and that she tried to save them. Tata is being tried on one of four felony murder counts she faces, related to the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Chestnut told jurors that he and his friend, Geoffrey Deshano, 20, were at Deshano's house, across the street from the day care, when they saw Tata drive up. Tata went inside, then immediately came out screaming that the house was on fire, Chestnut said. He called 911 while Deshano went to the day care with Tata.
Chestnut's 911 call was one of several made during the fire
In one from Tata that lasted several minutes, the distraught day care owner could be heard telling an operator, "Children are dying. ... I can't see anything. My kids are dying. ... They're all babies. Hurry, please hurry."