By Juan A. Lozano
The Associated Press
HOUSTON — 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."
At one point in the call, Tata yelled out, "Are you in there?" and a child's voice could be heard responding, "Yeah." Tata then told the child, "Crawl out the window. I can't see you." At other times during the call, children could be heard crying in the background.
At the end of the call, Tata said, "Please help me. Oh my gosh, I don't know what to do."
As her 911 call was played in the courtroom, Tata began loudly sobbing. Several of the children's family members also began crying.
After Chesnut was forced out of the house, he went into the backyard with Tata. As he and Tata stood there, a boy ran out of the house. "He was really burnt and covered in soot," Chestnut said.
A short time after that, a second boy ran out. He was not as badly injured, Chesnut said.
Tata's attorneys earlier in the trial said Tata had pulled the two children from the home.
Meanwhile, Deshano had gone to a window on the side of the house that Tata earlier had busted open. Deshano told jurors he could see a boy reaching out.
"I tried to pick him up under his arms but smoke got into my eyes and lungs. It was hard for me to breathe. ... I was almost about to pass out. I dropped him back down, back into the house," he said.
Deshano was not able to rescue the boy. Chesnut said he and Deshano unsuccessfully tried to find a water hose to help extinguish the flames. Soon after, firefighters arrived and pulled the remaining children from the house.
During a break in testimony, a relative of one of the children walked over to where Chesnut was sitting and thanked him for what he had tried to do.
Earlier Friday, a former manager at the Target store where Tata went just before the fire testified that Tata did not seem to be frantic or in a hurry to leave after remembering while in the store that she had left the stove burner on.
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Besides the four felony murder counts, Tata was indicted on three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child. Testimony resumes Monday.