Fire, collapse keep FFs from reaching mom, children in La. blaze
St. John the Baptist Parish firefighters were unable to rescue a mother and her two children inside the burning home
By Michelle Hunter
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
MT. AIRY, La. — A mother and her two young children died in a two-alarm fire that collapsed the roof of their Mt. Airy home before dawn Wednesday morning, complicating firefighters' efforts to find and recover their bodies.
Investigators with the Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office were still working Wednesday afternoon to determine the cause of the blaze.
Relatives identified the dead as Quintella Chopin, a 38-year-old, hard-working mother; her daughter, J'irmani Edwards, a 7-year-old second grader and honors student; and Chopin's 2-year-old son, Therrill Edwards Jr., affectionately known as "T.J."
"We're all in disbelief," said Trevor Edwards, 42, the children's aunt.
Knock in the night
Trevor Edwards was asleep next door to the residence in the 100 block of Marigold Street (map) when she said someone began banging on her door about just before 3:40 a.m.
A passerby headed to work spotted flames coming from the house, pulled over and tried to rouse the residents, said Ashley Rodrigue, spokesperson for the State Fire Marshal's Office.
Trevor Edwards and other family members made their way outside to see Chopin's apartment above their garage consumed by fire.
"It was engulfed in flames," she said. "It had to have been going for at least 20 or 30 minutes."
She and other relatives rushed to the staircase at the back of the garage apartment — the only way into and out of the residence — but were turned back by thick, billowing smoke, Trevor Edwards said.
Unable to enter the apartment through the door, they ran under the carport and yelled in hopes of waking the family.
"We tried everything. I screamed," Trevor Edwards said.
But debris began to rain down around them. Concerned that they might lose their own lives, the relatives moved to safety as others dialed 911.
Fire crews arrived within about five minutes, according to St. John the Baptist Parish Fire Chief Cain Dufrene. Firefighters could see the tall flames as soon as they turned onto Marigold Street, he said. Relatives told firefighters that there were people inside.
"Because of the intensity of the flames, they were unable to get to the victims," Rodrigue said.
Once the fire was extinguished, the structure's collapse slowed the process of finding and removing Chopin and her children from the house.
Working carefully, crews finally recovered the last of the victims' bodies about 2 p.m., authorities said. T.J.'s body was found near the top of the stairs that led out of the residence, Rodrigue said. Chopin was in a bathroom and J'irmani was in one of the apartment's two bedrooms.
Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Rodrigue said the blaze is not considered suspicious.
Loving mother and children
Relatives streamed onto the street throughout Wednesday morning, gathering on the northern end of Marigold as recovery efforts were underway. Many of the residents in the area are related in one way or another, Trevor Edwards said.
Her brother, Therrill Edwards Sr., was not home when the fire broke out. He and Chopin had been together for about 20 years, according to Trevor Edwards.
"He's holding up," she said.
Trevor Edwards described Chopin as a hard-working, humble mother who was dedicated to her children and loved them.
J'irmani celebrated her 7th birthday just a week before the fire. Her name could frequently be found on the honor roll or principal's list at nearby Garyville/Mt. Airy Math and Science Magnet School, Trevor Edwards said.
Energetic, vivacious and outgoing, J'irmani loved sneaking candy, trying on her aunt's lipstick or donning a bit of perfume.
T.J. was a typical toddler who could be friendly and cuddly one moment and want nothing to do you the next, Trevor Edwards said.
"He was full of life, a lot of personality. Just overall very smart," she said.