Three siblings under age 7 died in a late-night fire in a house in north Minneapolis’ Jordan neighborhood, authorities and family members confirmed Sunday.

Although it’s too soon for an official ruling on the cause of the blaze, several friends said Sunday that the oven was on to provide heat because the furnace wasn’t working. Fire Chief John Fruetel also said the oven door was open and the fire’s origin was at or near the stove.

The family — the mother and her three children — had moved into the two-story house in the 2700 block of Penn Avenue N. on Saturday. The mother was not injured. Two of her children were found in a first-floor bedroom and died at the scene; the third child was on the second floor, Fruetel said. That child was taken to a hospital and later died, authorities said.

Identities of the children and their causes of death were expected in the coming days from the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office. Neither the religious and community leaders nor relatives at the fire scene on Sunday would give the children’s names or ages, but several sources said all were younger than 7, and photographs showed a boy and two girls.

Pastor Harding Smith of the Spiritual Church of God said he was the family’s pastor and is meeting with the children’s mother Monday morning. Their names will be released then, he said.

Smith was with the family a good part of the day Sunday, too. He said the mother had just moved from Illinois to be closer to relatives and make a better life. He asked for everyone “to please keep the … family in their prayers” as they “get an understanding as to what has happened.”

“The mother is just totally despondent,” Smith said midafternoon. “She is lying in bed, just out of it.”

A stream of visitors

A steady stream of neighbors, relatives and passersby came by the charred and partly boarded house throughout the day Sunday. The Rev. Annie Hester of Holsey Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, prayed at the front steps of the home late in the morning. Hester and Pastor John Martin left red artificial tulips on the steps.

Within hours, the steps were covered with stuffed teddy bears, toys, a scooter, red roses and signs. Written on the house was “R.I.P. little angels in heaven.”

Smith led a group, holding hands, in prayer at a short vigil at the house shortly after 5 p.m.

Earlier in the afternoon, one passerby said her son, a 23-year-old veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the children’s mother standing outside screaming for help. He ran to the back of the house and broke out a window to try to rescue the two older children, but was driven back by the heat and smoke.

The experience “put him right back there [in the war],” his mother said, adding that she had him admitted to a hospital afterward.

Family happy to have a home

Ralpheal Terry said he’d known the children’s mother for about three weeks, and Saturday night, he met the children for the first time.

“She was so happy that she got an apartment,” Terry said. “She wanted me to come over. Everybody was happy, everybody was playing around together, talking together, listening to music, dancing. She fixed the kids something to eat, then she put the kids to bed.

“She had turned her oven on, because the landlord said he was going to have somebody come down to fix the furnace.

“I was the last person to see these kids before this tragedy happened,” he said. “They was happy because they was moving into this house. It was like their first Christmas.”

The children’s mother returned to the scene shortly after 5 p.m., held up by her mother, an aunt and other family members. The group was immediately surrounded by TV cameras and microphones and the children’s mother said little between sobs.

“I was in the house with my kids,” she said. “I tried to open the front door so the smoke would go out so I could get them.” Once outside, she said, she could not go back in.

The group then moved down the block, crying and hugging. When two fire trucks roared down Penn Avenue with sirens blaring, the mother screamed and collapsed.

The 100-year-old house was last valued at $63,000 and is owned by a landlord from Shakopee who bought it in 2013 and also has had other properties on the North Side.

Owner says gas was off

Owner Dung Tu said the family had just moved in and the natural gas heat had not yet been turned on.

Natasha Hibbs came to see what had been her home for two years and said she used to heat the house with the oven sometimes because of problems with the furnace.

Although firefighters had the blaze out within an hour, it had burned hotly and quickly. The first floor appeared gutted, while window frames on the second floor were charred. Burned timber, broken glass and discarded medical gloves were scattered in the yard.

Hester and Martin said the mother had no life insurance and lost everything in the fire. Another vigil to find ways to help the family with funeral costs will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Holsey Church, 1229 Logan Av. N. in Minneapolis.

State officials said there have now been seven fire fatalities in Minneapolis this year.

The incident recalled a similar tragedy on Valentine’s Day of 2014, when five children were killed after a North Side duplex went up in flames. That blaze was one of the deadliest in Minneapolis history.

 

Staff writers Libor Jany and Paul Walsh contributed to this report. karen.zamora@startribune.com 612-916-3810 pat.pheifer@startribune.com 952-746-3284