Michelle Mitchell and her three sons placed a sign, two stuffed animals and two flowers at the foot of a telephone pole where C and Franklin streets intersect Friday evening. The sign read: “Heaven gained 3 Angels, RIP 12/12/14.”
The makeshift memorial lays a mere 20 feet from the charred remains of a two-story home where three children lost their lives in a devastating fire early Friday morning.
Alexander Flores-Ortiz, 7; Siclali Flores-Ortiz, 10; and Yesenia Flores-Ortiz, 12, all died from injuries sustained in the fire at 135 Franklin St. Their father, Ismael “Michael” Flores-Ortiz , suffered severe burns while trying to get back inside the house to save the children. He remains at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he is listed in critical condition, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
The mother, Crystal Flores, and her 2-year-old son, Anthony Flores-Ortiz, who was shaking and vomiting at the scene, were taken to Fort Hamilton Hospital for treatment. Crystal Flores was discharged at about 6 a.m. and then transported to UC Medical Center, according to Alex Smith, a spokesperson for Kettering Health.
The couple’s 9-year-old son, Ismael Flores-Ortiz, who escaped without injury, and the 2-year-old, who was released from Fort Hamilton Friday, are with family, fire officials and family members said.
The cause of the fire, which wasn’t the first at the residence, remains under investigation by the Hamilton Fire Department and the Ohio State Fire Marshal.
Mitchell said two of her sons went to Bridgeport Elementary with Siclali and Alexander, while her oldest son, who goes to Wilson Middle School, knew Yesenia.
“My kids all knew the kids in that house. When they had grief counselors at the school today, they wanted to do something for their friends,” she said of the memorial.
The fatal fire has left this Hamilton neighborhood and the community in emotional ruin. The three deceased children were described by family and those who knew them as “good kids” who “loved school and church.”
Daniel Jones, a family friend whose daughter goes to the same church, Freedom Chapel on Ross Avenue, as the Flores-Ortiz children, called their deaths “devastating to people around this neighborhood.”
“It’s a sad moment for all,” Jones said. “How can such a thing happen? They were real good kids, smiley, friendly, never in any trouble at all. “God bless the family. I hope they make it through this.”
Hamilton police and fire responded to 135 Franklin St. at about 2:40 a.m. to find the house engulfed in flames, said Hamilton Deputy Fire Chief Ken Runyan. Fire officials said the mother and father were on the first floor of the home and were able to get out with only their 2-year-old and 9-year-old sons.
“The father tried to rescue his children and suffered burns,” Runyan said.
Runyan said when firefighters arrived at the scene the first floor of the home was being ravaged by flames, and they were told people were trapped on the second floor. He said firefighters used ladders to gain access to the second floor, where the bodies of the three children were found.
Three 911 calls were received by Butler County dispatchers with all three callers reporting they could hear people yelling and screaming. One caller told dispatchers, “There’s a fire across the street from me. Oh my God. There’s kids in there!”
Liz Delk, a neighbor, described the scene as if “it was like a bomb went off.”
“It (the fire) was coming out the whole bottom floor. I ran to the gate and by the time I got to the gate, the flames were coming out the door,” Delk said. “It was so intense; you can feel the heat it was so hot.”
Leonardo Flores, 40, who is the father’s brother, said while no official cause has been released, Crystal Flores told him “she thinks it was the Christmas tree” that caused the fire.
“I live a block away. My sister-in-law ran into my place and knocked on my door and said, ‘The house is on fire,’” Flores said. “I ran this way to help them, but there was nothing I could do. The fire was real big; the firemen, all the stuff was already here.”
“I don’t even know what to say,” Flores said about the tragedy.
Yesenia Flores-Ortiz, who is the father’s sister and lives next door on Franklin Street, told this newspaper Saturday that her brother Ismael is “in a lot of pain right now,” but he is “alert and talking.” She said he keeps saying that it is his fault for not saving his children and that he keeps asking why he didn’t die instead of them.
She said Crystal Flores is doing OK and is by her husband’s side at UC Medical Center. Yesenia said their parents and other family members are on their way to Hamilton from Mexico to provide support.
Friday wasn’t the first time tragedy has struck the Flores-Ortiz family, which hails from Mexico.
Leonardo Flores said the family lost another 2-year-old seven years ago when the child died in its sleep.
Rhonda Campos, a family friend told our news partners WCPO 9 On Your Side, that Crystal Flores “had got up one morning and had fed the child and everything and laid it back down. Two hours later, she went to check on it, and it was dead.”
Friday also wasn’t the family’s first encounter with a house fire. Campos said the family was forced from their home a few years ago because of a fire caused by faulty wiring.
And this newspaper reported back in 2011 that fire crews responded to a fire at the home where an officer had to enter the burning structure and assist the family in getting out. The fire resulted in damages estimated at $5,000 and was caused by children playing with matches and igniting laundry on the basement floor, according to a Hamilton fire report.
“It’s just been tragedy after tragedy, and let’s just hope that they can make it through this and hope people will be praying for them because prayers are the answer to everything,” Campos said.
Joni Copas, spokeswoman for Hamilton City Schools, confirmed Siclali and Alexander attended Bridgeport Elementary School, while Yesenia was a seventh-grader at Garfield Middle School. She said the district had counselors and psychologists at the schools for students and staff on Friday.
“It’s somber and solemn, very sad day not only for the school district, but for the whole community when you lose children in such a situation,” Copas said.
Melissa Blea, 28, a neighbor who lives at 113 Franklin St., said she has known the Flores-Ortiz family for 10 years. Her 5-year-old daughter Leilan rode the bus with Alexander. She said she struggled with how to tell her daughter about the tragedy.
“I don’t think she really gets it to the fullest,” Blea said. “I could tell that she was sad, but I didn’t know how to tell her.”
Blea said the children would come down to her house all the time to play with her kids.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “I don’t know, emotionally, how they are going to be, but I think they will have a lot of support (from family and the community).”
An official with the American Red Cross said the organization would begin assisting the family as soon as they are released from the hospital.
“We will provide food, clothing and shelter as they begin to piece their lives back together,” said Skip Tate, spokesman for the Red Cross Greater Cincinnati-Dayton region. “We will also provide financial assistance for the funerals of the children who were killed, as well as offer mental health assistance as the family copes with their loss.”
John Berry, a member at Hamilton Presbyterian Church, said every Friday their congregation prepares meals for those in need in the community and eight meals were donated to the Flores-Ortiz family.
The Butler County Coroner’s Office conducted autopsies on the three children Friday. No cause of death was released pending the results of the fire investigation.
Runyan, of the Hamilton Fire Department, said tragedies like this also take an emotional toll on the firefighters. A stress debriefing team was called in for firefighters at the scene to offer counseling services.
“It’s always tragic no matter what time of year it is,” Runyan said of Christmas being two weeks away. “It’s just that much harder for the guys who have kids.”
Runyan said this is a dangerous time of year for fires.
“This time of year you have space heaters, you have multiple uses of extension cords and stuff like that,” he said. “We try to get the word out to the public to be more aware; space heaters need space from combustibles so when it gets cold you have more instances of problems.”
Tragedy has struck before during the holidays in Hamilton with fatal fires involving children. In November of 2005, four children — ages 6, 8, 9 and 9 — were killed in a fire at the Neilan Park Apartments on Hurm Street. Two years later in December 2007, a 12-year-old boy died saving his sister from a fire that destroyed a duplex on Hueston Street.