By the time the woman ran into the freezing morning in nothing but a nightgown, the two-story brick house was already engulfed in flames.
“Call 911!” she screamed, barefoot in the yard. “Please help!”
One of the woman’s sisters ran from the house. Another sister jumped from a second-floor window to escape.
But others were trapped.
Four people — a couple and their twin 2-year-old grandchildren — would not survive.
Later Tuesday morning, the family’s melted and charred possessions were piled in the yard as investigators worked to determine what caused the fire that gutted the home and devastated three generations of a Nigerian immigrant family who had proudly moved in last year.
“It’s a terrible way to begin the year,” said Festus Sowho, a family friend who visited the blackened house in Chillum, Md., on Tuesday. “The worst thing that can happen to anybody is to lose children.”
The twins — Anna and Israel Omijie — were pulled from the house by firefighters and taken to Children’s National Medical Center, where they were pronounced dead. Their grandmother, Caroline Omogbo, 55, and grandfather, Samson Omogbo, 63, died at the scene.
The twins’ mother, who jumped from the window, remained in the hospital as of Tuesday afternoon with head injuries, friends said.
Tuesday’s tragedy came on the one-year anniversary of a deadly house fire in Annapolis sparked by a dry Christmas tree that killed a couple and their four grandchildren.
The Chillum fire does not appear suspicious, investigators said.
Investigators did not find smoke detectors in the home, which the family was renting in the 6700 block of Knollbrook Drive, Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said. “The smoke alarm gives you that early alert so you can get out,” he said. “It was a chance they didn’t have.”
Samson Omogbo came to the United States at least 15 years ago from Nigeria after winning a green-card lottery, according to friends and his church pastor. He started a furniture-restoration business and was able to bring his wife and seven children — three sons and four daughters — to the United States shortly after his arrival.
They were a close family and embraced a cultural tradition of several generations living under one roof. They all went to church together, sang together and danced together.
“They’re a very close family,” said Stephen Akinnola, a church member and family friend. “If you see one, you can guarantee to see the others.”
The furniture business was doing so well, friends said, that Samson and Caroline Omogbo moved with at least three of their children into a bigger home, the one that burned Tuesday.
The fire began at 2:03 a.m. and grew so large as the family slept that neighbors across a creek from the house spotted the flames, fire officials said. By the time emergency crews arrived, fire and smoke filled the first and second floors.
Frantic sisters out front directed firefighters to the family members still inside.
It took about 20 firefighters and medics about 30 minutes to put out the fire and treat victims. Bashoor said fighting the fire was difficult because of the extreme cold. Ladders and hoses froze and ice hung from firefighters’ uniforms.
Crews were aggressive and got to those trapped and hurt “pretty quickly,” but the injuries of those who died “were pretty severe,” Bashoor said. All of the victims were pulled from second-floor bedrooms, he said.
The house that burned is owned by the McGarvey Family Trust, headed by Paul J. McGarvey, an 83-year-old Prince George’s County lawyer who handles cases involving drunken driving, divorce and estate planning.
“I can’t believe what happened,” McGarvey said of the fatal fire. “I take care of my properties. That’s the sad thing.”
McGarvey said that as of Tuesday afternoon he not yet talked to county officials or fire investigators about what could have caused the fire but said that his maintenance manager had told him that a smoke detector had been installed in the home.
“I’m almost certain we had them in there,” McGarvey said. But then he added, “I don’t really know. I have a man who does all my work.”
Susan Hubbard, a spokeswoman with the Prince George’s County Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement, said there are no current citations or violations against the house on Knollbrook Drive. It could not be immediately determined when the last inspection took place. It is up to the owner of a rental home to install smoke detectors, county officials said.
Bashoor said the investigation is ongoing and it is too soon to consider whether charges are warranted in the incident.
“It is painful,” said Charles Agbuza, the head pastor at the Celestial Church of Christ, where Samson Omogbo was a respected leader. “One would imagine things like this would not happen to them. It is not an easy thing to handle.”
Friends of the Omogbos rushed to the neighborhood as they learned of the tragedy. Many are also immigrants from Africa, and they had bonded with Samson Omogbo through shared culture as members of the Urhobo ethnic group.
As firefighters continued to work, hoses stretched along the street, tears slowly rolled down the cheeks of Sowho, Lucky Ajueyitsi and Michael Efemini. The three men reminisced about their visit to the home about five months ago for a meeting of the Urhobo Association of Washington, D.C. Caroline Omogbo cooked a feast, and Samson Omogbo proudly introduced his children and grandchildren to his friends, bragging about a son who was a basketball player at Colorado State University.
Caroline Omogbo adored her grandchildren, they remembered. And Samson Omogbo was an “electrifying” speaker who loved to dance and sing.
Before heading to a local hospital to visit the twins’ mother, Ajueyitsi pulled up a YouTube video on his cellphone. On the screen was an image of him and Samson Omogbo singing a traditional song together in the Urhobo language with others at a recent picnic.
“Life is good. We live the life,” they sang. “It is the blessings of the father that goes with the child.”