Camden Courier-Post – December 2, 1980
CAMDEN—The intense heat of a fire that killed four children here yesterday caused so much damage to their Erie Street row home that authorities are having trouble determining the cause of the blaze.
“It was hot in there. And when it’s that hot, everything looks like it was the cause,” Camden Fire Marshal Harold Pike said yesterday. “This thing was so darn hot, it looked like the whole first floor started the fire.”
A fireman at the scene said he found a melted soda bottle in the kitchen on the first floor of the two-story home at 328 Erie St. in the city’s North Camden section. The fireman said it would have required temperatures of about 1,000 degrees to melt the bottle.
Pike said investigators do not suspect arson at this point. He also said authorities do not believe the fire was electrical in origin or that it was caused by careless smoking. Investigators have been told no one in the house smoked cigarettes, he said.
“We believe it was an accidental fire,” Pike said. “And we’re trying to find out what that accident was. It’s gutted down to the floor and it’s going to be very difficult.
“The 6 am fire took the lives of Tanya Adams, 11; Andre Adams, 10; Steven Adams, 9; and Tyhe Adams, 8.
The children’s mother, Merel Hall, and her husband, Robert, who were in an upstairs front bedroom, managed to escape through a window. But the children were trapped in their rooms.
The bodies of the three boys were found huddled in a closet in their bedroom in the upstairs middle section of the home. Authorities said the boys apparently fled to the closet in fear. Tanya’s body was found on the floor by a window in her upstairs rear bedroom.
Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Dennis Wixsted said autopsied, concluded yesterday by county medical examiner William T. Read, showed the children died of asphyxiation from smoke inhalation. Wixted, who was present at the autopsies, said the children also sustained some burns.
Mrs. Hall’s brother, LeRoy Adams, who lives across the street from the Halls, said he tried to enter the second floor to rescue the children but was driven back by the smoke and flames.
Adams said he was awakened at about 6 am by Mrs. Hall’s screams. He said he ran to his bedroom window and saw his sister standing on the porch roof, screaming, “Somebody please help me! My kids are still in there!”
Adams said he dressed quickly, ran outside and scrambled onto the roof to help his sister and her husband. His sister was able to climb down and her husband fell to the sidewalk, Adams said.
The Halls were taken to Cooper Medical Center, Camden, where both were admitted for treatment.
A hospital spokewoman said Mrs. Hall, 27, was suffering from multiple trauma but was in satisfactory condition today. Hall, 21, was in fair condition with a broken wrist and broken ankle.
Hallie Adams, 50, Mrs. Hall’s mother, was released from the hospital after treatment for anxiety, the spokeswoman said. Monica Adams, 17, Mrs. Hall’s sister, was treated for smoke inhalation and later released. Both women also lived across the street from the Halls.
Grief-stricken relatives watched in horror as, one by one, the covered bodies of the children were removed from the home and placed into two white station wagons bearing the seal of the Camden County medical examiner’s office.
One woman who had been standing in front of the gutted home ran screaming and crying to a house across the street when firemen carried the first body out on a stretcher. A neighbor said the woman was one of the children’s aunts.
Another woman, identified by the neighbors as the children’s grandmother, was supported by a young man and woman as she walked from the Hall’s home and moaned, “Oh, my Lord!”
Pike said the fire was reported at 6:16 am. A second alarm went out seven minutes later. The fire was under control by 6:45 and was extinguished by 8 am, he said.
Pike said the home had no smoke or heat detectors and that the walls were made of thin paneling, “which generates huge amounts of heat.”
The path of the fire was such that anyone in the middle and rear bedrooms, where the children were found, would have been the first to be trapped, Pike Said.
At the scene, fireman Anthony Dowidowicz said children should be taught in school or by their parents that it is dangerous to hide in the midst of a fire.
“The worst thing to do is to hide in a closet or under a bed,” he said. “Firemen don’t know where you are. And that doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Panic is something you can’t control,” Pike said. “Most children do panic and attempt to hide. You can’t legislate panic.”
However, authorities said the home was filled with such intense flames that no rescue was possible.
Pike said Mr. and Mrs. Hall were too distraught yesterday to provide any information or clues as to what might have started the fire.
The fire also spread to the upper floors of the two rowhomes on either side of the Hall home. The homes were occupied, but the residents escaped without injury, Pike said.
The fire was being investigated by Pike’s office, the Camden County fire marshal’s office, Camden police and the county prosecutor’s office. Law enforcement agencies routinely are called in on fire cases involving death, authorities said.