MOUNT STERLING — A teenage girl and her three young cousins died Wednesday in an apartment fire.
Shirley Dawn Rothwell, 17, was baby-sitting Brandon Elam, 3, Wayne Elam, 5, and Timmy Elam, 7, when the fire broke out in a duplex in Mount Sterling sometime before 11 a.m.
The apartment that caught fire was rented by Linda Yarber, Shirley Dawn's mother. The mother of the three boys, Yarber's sister Sandra Elam, lives across the street.
The 17-year-old baby-sat the three boys often. The boys spent Tuesday night at Yarber's home.
Yarber said she came home Wednesday morning from a doctor's appointment and saw the apartment burning. She said she jumped out of the car, and Elam, who was home at the time, shouted that their children were gone.
"I've cried so hard my eyes are hurting. I can't cry no more," Yarber said Wednesday afternoon.
"I loved them boys. I took care of them. They were nice boys and you would have loved them," Yarber said.
Another relative, Mary Rothwell, said Shirley Dawn, who had dropped out of high school, liked hip-hop and she liked to dance.
"The boys were lovable. They'd make you smile and they'd come and hug you," she said. If you were having a bad day "they'd smile and make your day better," Mary Rothwell said.
"They've lost everything," she said in reference to Linda. The family lost pictures and Christmas gifts. Yarber also lost two Yorkie-poo dogs in the fire, Sassy, 3, and Tiny, 1. Relatives buried the dogs in the back yard after pulling them from the debris.
Sandra Elam cried as she spoke of the children.
"That's four kids I've lost," she said. An infant died about nine years ago.
"I want to blame myself, too. I wish it was me instead of my kids," Elam said.
Montgomery County Coroner Wally Johnson said the four appeared to have died of smoke inhalation.
Capt. Jerry Burnham of the Montgomery County fire department said the first call about the fire came in about 11:20 a.m. By the time fire crews reached the duplex at 1823 Foxway Drive, the building was engulfed in flames and neighbors had already pulled the children from the burning building, Burnham said. Crews from Winchester and Bath County also helped Montgomery County fire crews.
Kentucky State Trooper Ralph Lockard said the home was a converted apartment building with two separate units. No one was in the second unit at the time of the fire, police said. Lockard said no adults were home when the fire began.
The trooper said police and the state fire marshal's office are investigating the circumstances and cause of the fire.
Those in the community who knew the family said they were devastated when they heard the news.
Hopey Newkirk, director of pupil personnel for the Montgomery County school system, said Mount Sterling Elementary School will open early Friday so people can go and make donations for both families. School staff members will also be there Friday in case any friends of the children who died wanted to talk, Newkirk said.
Newkirk said the school system and various community groups were hoping to have a special account for the families started by Friday, when banks reopen after the Christmas holidays.
"They were really sweet boys," Newkirk said of the family of three boys. Shirley Dawn had attended the Montgomery County schools. Timothy, called Timmy by those who knew him, was a second-grader at Mount Sterling Elementary. Wayne was in the school system's preschool program.
"He really liked school," Newkirk said of Timmy. "He was really excited about it and he was having success at school, which made Wayne excited about school. He was also a big wrestling fan. He loved John Cena (a popular WWE wrestler). Every time I hear that name, I think of Timmy," Newkirk said, her voice cracking.
Newkirk said that when school resumes Jan. 5, the school system will also have counselors and other staff there to help students and staff deal with the loss. Many staff at Mount Sterling Elementary knew Timmy.
"He is just a cute little fellow," Newkirk said of Timmy. "He would just run up to you with his arms wide open and expected a hug."