From his hospital bed Saturday, the father who survived the Friday morning fire that killed five of his seven children wept that he could not save them all from the flames.
“I wanted to get all of my babies,” wailed Troy Lewis. “All of my babies,” he repeated, doubling over in grief. “I wanted all my babies!”
The Minneapolis Fire Department continued to investigate the cause of the blaze at 2818 Colfax Ave. N., one of the deadliest in the city’s history, but disclosed no new information Saturday about how it started and spread.
Lewis remained in satisfactory condition at Hennepin County Medical Center, the same hospital where his surviving children, 9-year-old Shaca and 5-year-old Electra, were in serious condition.
He was treated for smoke inhalation and spine injuries from jumping out of a window, but his deepest wound was the loss of so many of his children.
There was 8-year-old Christopher, a budding ladies’ man with dimples who rooted for the Twins. There was Mary, who was likely going to be treated to Chuck E. Cheese’s for her seventh birthday later this month. There was Gwendolyn, the youngest at 19 months who had already grown two teeth up top and two on the bottom.
Fannie was about 5 years old and heading to school soon, while Troy, at 3, was already developing a headstrong personality.
In his brief interview with the Star Tribune, Lewis, 60, said that he jumped from a second-story window after the fire broke out. He had heard Shaca calling to him and realized he could not get to her through the kitchen because of the fire. So he leapt to the ground and ran back upstairs to help Shaca, who was gasping for air, out the door.
When he returned for Christopher, he saw it was too late.
“He was dead,” Lewis said. “I saw him burned. I saw my baby burn.”
He had to leave Christopher’s body so he could rescue Electra instead. He concluded that Fannie and Troy were also dead because they had been in the same room as Christopher.
“I had a choice to make, a dead child here or … a live one,” Lewis said.
He helped Electra outside and tried to bring Mary down, but she, too, had already succumbed to the fire. He wanted to go back for Gwendolyn, but the floor was burning hot, and he could barely breathe.
“That’s all,” said Lewis. “Not a hero, just wanted to get my child. I wanted to get all of my babies.”
While many details about how the fire began remain unclear, Lewis described a constant struggle to keep the home warm.
He said the unit was poorly insulated and always cold. A heater on the wall wouldn’t turn on, he said, and he left hot water running in the shower in the mornings so the bathroom would be warm enough for the kids. He also often kept the stove on, though he said he turned it off before going to sleep. He also had bought a space heater to help warm their home.
The landlord, Paul Bertelson, countered Saturday that the walls and ceilings were insulated. He said utilities were in the tenant’s name and they controlled the heat settings.
Inspectors said Friday that the building had no current code violations.
Rosie Boyd, the victims’ grandmother, said the children had already been grappling with the loss of their 31-year-old mother, Kim Davis, who died in October. Boyd, who was Davis’ mother, believes her daughter “wanted her kids with her so God came and got them for her.”
She said Lewis had cared well for the children, supporting them with the help of Social Security and other benefits.
She regularly went to watch them when their father left the house. They lived like typical children, she said, fighting over which cartoons they wanted to watch and competing for their father’s attention. They took turns peeping out the window awaiting the arrival of their father, and when they spotted him they raced to clean up the house so they would stay in his good graces.
“They didn’t need friends from the outside because that’s a gang over there right by themselves … They loved each other,” Boyd said.
Outside the burned home, more than 100 people, including school officials and community leaders, joined Saturday in a vigil. They prayed, sang and called for communitywide support for the Lewis family and another that was displaced by the fire from their downstairs section of the duplex.
Many did not know the Lewises, but came out of empathy and grief, they said.
Among the balloons and stuffed animals left at the site was a Bethune Elementary School reading certificate for Mary Lewis.
“This is a beautiful, strong family,” Principal Melissa Jackson of Bethune Community School said, referring to how the schools had supported the children after the death of their mother.
Teachers and other school staff members are regrouping this weekend and preparing to return to their classrooms, Jackson said, “because Tuesday, it will be all about the children.”