A father and his 4-year-old son dangled from a second-story window Thursday as a fire that killed a 2-year-old boy and raised the specter of foul play raced through a St. Paul house.
The 4-year-old hung out the window upside down, his knees bent over the window frame, as his father dangled from the boy's wrists, said neighbor Stephen Oswald, who had raced across the street to help. The father kicked against the side of the house, trying to pry the boy loose so both could fall to safety, but the boy's legs appeared caught on something inside. "You have to let go! He's stuck!" Oswald yelled as he stood below the father and son.
"I can't let go!" the man cried as he clutched his son's wrists.
"I've never seen a look like that out of a kid," Oswald recalled a few hours after the fire had been extinguished. "I don't ever want to see it again."
The man finally dropped to safety and Oswald tried to climb onto a picnic table to reach the boy. Futile. He ran home to grab a ladder. By the time he returned, the father and his son were gone, taken to Regions Hospital with noncritical injuries, as were two other adults from the house. Only the child remained hospitalized Thursday evening.
The 2-year-old boy who was pronounced dead was identified as Amir Coleman by family friend Joe Williams. He was found on the second floor, authorities said. An official cause of death has not been determined, but St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said the child suffered some burns.
Late Thursday, police continued searching for "a person of interest," a man St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Schnell said was known to the family and who had been in the house with the family's permission shortly before the fire broke out.
Authorities said that the fire started in the ground floor of the duplex at 839 Blair Av. about 2:30 p.m. and that the fire department decided to call in police after finding evidence that suggested the blaze was not accidental. "The nature of the burn .... would indicate that the fire is suspicious," Schnell said.
"We haven't made any determination on the cause and are not ruling anything out," said Zaccard, overseeing the fire investigation.
There is evidence an accelerant may have been used in the mud porch, Zaccard said, adding that the home had functioning smoke detectors.
Oswald was peeking out his living room window when he noticed small flames licking the windows of his neighbor's mud porch. In a matter of seconds, Oswald said, the flames had leaped up several feet. Knowing that a woman, her three grown sons, one son's wife and their young child lived at the home, Oswald panicked.
"You can't think straight," he said, adding that all the porch windows exploded in the short time it took him to run across the street.
After convincing the father to let go of his son, Oswald saw a man covered in soot, sitting on the front lawn, his pants badly ripped or burned, calling out, "My baby's in there! Help my baby!"
Oswald recognized him as one of the three brothers who lived at the address. Williams said the man is a cousin to the father and 4-year-old who were hanging out the window. Neighbors and authorities said two women who also live at the house were not home at the time of the fire.
"[Amir] was like a son to me," Williams said. "He's happy all of the time. He's a joy."
Some of the injured residents suffered cuts, and the father and son exhibited signs of smoke inhalation, which could indicate internal burns, said St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler. It's unclear if they suffered any internal injuries from the jump, Butler said. A firefighter also was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
"They were some pretty happy kids. ... I loved that family since I was a kid," said Monica Taiwo, who lives next door to the victims.
The fatality is the second fire death in St. Paul this year, which doubles the number of fire-related fatalities recorded during the previous two years.
In 2009, St. Paul had no fire deaths, the first time that occurred since 1946, when the city began keeping such records.
Anyone with information on the fire should call St. Paul police at 651-291-1111.
Staff writers Vince Tuss, Anthony Lonetree and Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report. Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391