MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Nine people — six children and three adults — died early Monday in Memphis' deadliest house fire in decades, and one other child is fighting for life at a hospital, authorities said.
Firefighters initially spotted light smoke outside the single-story wood-and-brick home in south Memphis when they arrived about 1:20 a.m. but encountered heavy smoke inside once they entered, Memphis Fire Services Director Gina Sweat said at a news conference Monday morning.
Sweat told reporters that fire crews found four adults and three children dead in the home. In a Monday afternoon news release, the Memphis Fire Department corrected the breakdown of the victims found in the home to three adults and four children.
Two other children died after being taken in extremely critical condition to a children's hospital, officials said.
One other child remains hospitalized, said Sweat, who called it the deadliest fire in Memphis since the 1920s. More recently, seven people died in a fire here in 2008, fire department spokesman Wayne Cooke said.
The fire was caused by an electrical malfunction in an air conditioning unit's power cord in the living room, the fire department said in a news release Monday afternoon. While the inside of the home was charred, the house didn't burn down and fire officials said only part of the house was affected by the fire.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland asked for prayers for family members of the dead, who weren't immediately identified. Some of the victims had signs of smoke inhalation, while others had burns, according to authorities.
"It's a very sad day," Strickland said. "We are all in mourning."
The wooden-frame home, which has a brick facade and bars on some of its windows and doors, is in a poor, working-class neighborhood of south Memphis. Investigators determined that the house did have a working smoke alarm, the fire department said.
The fire official also said it wasn't immediately clear if those inside had tried to escape through the windows. Sweat said window bars present a danger for people trying to escape a house fire, though many window bars have releases that can open them from the inside.
"They could have been simply overcome by smoke and never had an opportunity to escape," she said.
Officials said the fire caused $8,000 in damage to the house and another $15,000 to the contents inside the home. The fire was brought under control in about 20 minutes.
Sweat went to the site early Monday and spoke with firefighters shocked by the loss of life.
"You could feel the heavy in their hearts, and you could see the pain in their eyes," she said.
Frederick Terrell said he knew the family well and is stunned. He added they used to have neighborhood parties and were a close-knit family.
"It's hard," Terrell said. "Those kids were so loving, man."
Hours after the fire, a woman knelt on the ground outside the home and wept. Other people hugged each other and prayed together along the street. Neighbors stood by, watching as fire officials went about the house, now cordoned by yellow crime scene tape draped on a fence out front. A red motorized children's toy truck and a red bicycle with no wheels sat outside of the home.
Felecia Wallace, 34, said she has known the family since she was in elementary school. She said she once needed bus fare to get to work and someone who lived in the house just gave it to her.
"This is a loving family," Wallace said. "If you needed anything, you could come right here. If you were hungry, you could come right here. If you needed a place to sleep, you could come right here."
A fund to help the family has been established at Regions Bank, under the name Toots Family Funds.