JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A woman and three children were critically injured when a gas stove exploded Tuesday evening, setting off a fire that tore through the Calloway Cove Apartments and displaced a dozen families.
"The front window by the kitchen, it exploded first," witness Shawn Prince said. "Then it blew out the back window right here. All I heard was kids screaming."
Prince said watching the children being rescued from the fire was heartbreaking, saying they were on fire while being pulled out of windows.
At least seven people were sent to area hospitals Tuesday night, according to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department. Family members told News4Jax those critically injured in the fire were Danielle Nicole Ethridge and three children: Amarah, Carla and Taj.
"It was scary to see because the baby was burnt up," Prince said. "The little boy, like his clothes melted to his skin. The mother was really burnt up. It was like a terrifying nightmare."
The three children are in the burn unit of Shands Hospital in Gainesville. The mother also remains hospitalized.
Neighbor Tiffany Jones can’t believe this type of tragedy would hit so close to home.
"They was nice and humble people. Quiet. Kept to themselves," Jones said of the family that suffered the worst burns.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the Ethridge family.
Michael Smith and his family are moving into a different building that was renovated. Their previous apartment was badly damaged in the fire. He said he was asleep when his wife, who is pregnant, alerted him to the fire.
"When I opened the door, the whole building was in flames," Smith said. "All my newborn baby's stuff and my unborn child's stuff, everything is completely gone."
Despite escaping the fire and having a new roof over their heads, the family said it still has a road to recovery after losing most of their possessions.
"It's been extremely stressful. Extremely stressful trying to figure out where I'm going, what I'm doing, how I'm going to get there," Smith said. "But everything has been pretty much falling into place."
The American Red Cross said it is assisting 11 families burned out by the fire. Apartment managers said they have 14 open units elsewhere in the complex, so they are making arrangement to move the displaced families into new units.
"I would encourage the community to rally around these families," Fire Chief Keith Powers said late Tuesday night. "They are in a bad way tonight and they're going to need all the support of the local community to overcome this tragedy."
The state fire marshal spent the night digging through the rubble trying to determine the exact cause, but multiple sources blamed it on the stove.
On Thursday, La'Tasha Lunford posted to Facebook about clothing donations beging accepted for the Ethridge family at Sally B. Mathis Elemetary School.
'I can still smell the smoke'
Sanding in front of the apartment complex Wednesday, Ken Jefferson can tell the fire is still smoldering. News4Jax's crime and safety expert said his heart goes out to those injured and the families displaced.
Jefferson can relate to the victims more than most because he lived at the complex -- then known as Washington Heights -- when he was in middle school.
"These units are made up of a front door and a back door, so they’ve got two places that they can exit," Jefferson said. "I’m happy bystanders were able to help people get out of the apartments."
The complex is under new ownership and is going through a major overhaul, but the building that burned is one still waiting to be rehabilitated.
Jefferson said this is a critical reminder that families need to have fire escape plans.