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3 Children Perish in Thanksgiving House Fires

November 28, 1986|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

Three children died in San Diego fires early Thanksgiving morning despite heroic efforts of two passers-by and a neighbor to save the children.

Harry Cunningham and Paul Torres, both of National City, attempted unsuccessfully to rescue Willanette Anne Murray, 7, and her cousin, Leslie, 3, from a raging fire in a small, single-family house at 2812 B St., Golden Hill. The two longshoremen were driving to a a nearby municipal golf course shortly after 7 a.m., according to the San Diego County Coroner's office.

In Loma Portal, Cheryl Sadin fought flames and smoke in a vain effort to grab Robertta Kathleen Moffitt, 10, from a two-bedroom house at 3641 Poe St., next door to Sadin's house, shortly before 1 a.m., the coroner's office reported.

"We tried but we didn't make it," Cunningham, 52, said of the Golden Hill fire after he and Torres, his next-door neighbor, were treated at UC San Diego Medical Center for minor face and hand burns.

Cunningham said he and Torres saw smoke pouring out of the house and saw Leslie's mother trying to kick in a front window to get to the children.

"We kicked a gate down, ran over to the front door, tore down a metal gate (on the door), kicked in the door and heard the kids crying," Cunningham said. "We ran in but couldn't see anything, couldn't get a sense of direction, and then a blast of black smoke and fire blew me out the door.

"Then we no longer heard the kids crying. I feel real bad about it."

Martha Murray, the mother of Leslie, continued screaming on the front lawn for the children, a San Diego fire department spokesman said, and was comforted only when her husband and the family's minister arrived from a nearby church. James Murray had left the house before the fire broke out to help the Rev. Charles L. Taylor prepare Thanksgiving Day dinner for parishioners at Greater Apostolic Faith Temple.

"The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away," Murray repeated over and over.

Willanette, the couple's niece, had been staying at the home for three months, a San Diego County deputy coroner said. The girl's legal home was in New York with her grandmother, the deputy coroner said. Both girls died from extensive burns, she said.

The fire department was investigating the cause, focusing on the possibility of a faulty heater.

In Loma Portal, Cheryl Sadin said that she and her roommates thought their own house was on fire when they awoke suddenly about 12:45 a.m.

"I ran outside yelling to neighbors that there was a fire and realized it was the house next door," Sadin said. "I saw the little boy (Alex Moffitt, 11) trying to break in a window and screaming, 'My sister's in the house, my sister's in the house,' and flames were everywhere."

Sadin said she reached through a broken window into the bedroom where Robertta was sleeping on a sofa.

"I could see a white sheet and broken glass on the sofa bed and grabbed what was her forearm and yelled, 'Little girl, take my hand, come out, come out!' But then something fell onto my arm and a big gust of black smoke came at the same time, forcing me to let go and back away because I was choking.

"I went back to the window with my robe over my head but there was no way to get back in with all the smoke. When that something fell on me and I started gagging, I knew I had lost her."

Robertta Moffitt was a student at Silvergate Elementary School. Her mother, Kathleen Moffitt, was at work at the U.S. Postal Service when the fire broke out, a fire department spokesman said. Robertta's death was caused by extensive burns, a deputy coroner said.

The fire department is investigating the cause of the blaze.

Fire department spokesman Larry Stewart said that Sadin, Cunningham and Torres would be recommended for recognition of their efforts.

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