To look at it — a house still standing with only some stains of black ash rising from a few broken windows — it's hard to imagine the home on Sixth Avenue in western Rapid City was the site of one of the city's deadliest fires in history on Tuesday night.
And yet the home, at 2114 Sixth Ave., was the scene of unimaginable horror Tuesday, with three young children and their grandmother all dying in a brief but furious blaze that residents and fire officials say was caused by human error, possibly by the children themselves.
The entire fire ignited, rose up and was put out all within about 20 minutes, hardly leaving time for the 17 other residents who escaped unharmed to even begin to absorb the fact that four of their fellow tenants had been killed and that they themselves had been lucky enough to survive, many with only the clothes on their backs and a few belongings they could grab as they ran.
Fire officials say those killed were 51-year-old Marcia Rock and her grandchildren — brothers Thomas Rosado, 9, Dustin Rosado, 5, and Marquez Hawkwing, 3. They all shared an upstairs apartment at the home that had five rental units in total on its first floor and basement.
The fire was first reported at 10:52 p.m., and a three-person engine crew from Station 5 on Park Drive near Meadowbrook Golf Course arrived about four minutes later, fire officials said.
The crew knocked down the fire with water within three minutes; a minute later, they found the first body. An engine crew from Station 1 in downtown Rapid City arrived a few minutes later, and together they brought out the other three victims. Rock was dead at the scene, but the three children were taken to Rapid City Regional Hospital, where desperate attempts at resuscitation failed to revive their ash-covered bodies.
Between the time the fire was first noticed by residents and when fire officials had the blaze under control, a series of dramatic escapes took place. One set of young parents who were bathing their infant wrapped the child in a towel and ran shoeless into the cold night air.
Three men broke open a door to the apartment where the four people died but were beaten back by a rush of flames; moments later, they barely escaped themselves. And yet another woman ran through the apartment home knocking on doors and shouting before corralling her own four children, two dogs and a pet bird and rushing them to safety.
Neighbors who witnessed the fire swept in to help the survivors, with one man taking in the young family and giving them clothes to wear and serving them pizza and tea to warm them.
The tragic events inside the home left witnesses and survivors with agonizing mental images and emotional scars that won't heal anytime soon.
As he stood in the street looking at the charred home on Wednesday morning, across-the-street neighbor Larry Wright recalled rushing to the scene with a ladder, planning to break windows if necessary to help those inside. But he, and the residents who gathered in front of the home after escaping, believed everyone had made it out.
"We said, 'Is everybody out? Is everybody out?' And we believed they were," said Wright, brother of Rapid City Alderman Jerry Wright. Residents at first thought no one was in the upstairs apartment where the four perished because Rock's car was not out front, as it usually was.
"It made me sick, because I thought they all got out. Then you see them hauling out a little kid with a face all black and lifeless," Wright said.
Though detectives said their investigation of the fire could take weeks, Rapid City Fire Lt. Brent Long issued a news release midday Wednesday indicating that "human actions may have contributed to the cause of the fire and not the gas or electrical systems."
Later, survivors who were put up by the American Red Cross at a local Motel 6 pieced together a scenario where the children in the upstairs apartment may have lit a towel and toilet paper on fire either in mischief or as a prank.
The first report of any fire was made when several residents saw a white towel burning on a car outside. Moments later, resident Ricky Eagle Bull, 25, said he saw charred toilet paper in the hall outside Rock's apartment. Eagle Bull and two other residents thought no one was home in the apartment, and when they peered inside, they could see flames. When they kicked the door open, the entire room ignited, and flames shot out of the door.
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From there, they and more than a dozen other residents, many of them children, hustled out of the home to safety.
Later, after surviving residents gathered outside to take a head count, they began to see bodies being removed from the building, and they realized that Rock and the children had been inside after all.
“I just wish there was something I could have done, but I didn’t hear any kids. It was such a horrible sight seeing them carry those out one by one," Eagle Bull said Wednesday afternoon, still punishing himself over not being able to rescue the children. "I didn’t think anyone was home.”
Some residents and neighbors said they have long expressed concerns about the safety of the 3,360-square-foot wooden home that was built in 1950. Records show the home was sold in October by former owner Steve Paradis for $230,000 to Ty Ferley. Residents said Ferley replaced the roof and took steps to improve the building. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Wright said he has complained to City Hall more than once that too many people were living there and that the home was not kept up.
"I warned them that there would be a fire," he said Wednesday morning. "I really want to get active with the city and stop this."
Resident Cyndi Red Star also said she worried that fire could break out. She said residents often joked about how if the home caught fire it would go up very fast because it was an old building and because there is a drought and a lot of trees nearby.
Wright was upset that 21 people were living in the building’s five small apartments.
Rapid City municipal attorney Joel Landeen said it is extremely difficult to monitor the number of related or unrelated people living in a dwelling.
“We get few complaints about overcrowding,” Landeen said. “It’s hard to prove who exactly lives on the property.”
Red Star, 45, who lived in the home for about five years, said she knew Rock and the three children who died as nice people and good neighbors.
She said her teen son had become a mentor and caregiver to Rock's grandchildren.
"My son was always trying to be like a big brother to the little guys," she said. Her son was devastated by their deaths, she said.
As word of the fatalities spread, the news rocked Canyon Lake Elementary School, where Thomas Rosado was a fourth-grade student. Crisis counselors were called in to help students cope.
“It’s just devastating,” grandmother Valerie Dartt said as she gathered her grandson, Hayden, for the trip home after school let out.
Interviews with local officials and a check of Rapid City Journal archives did not reveal any fire in the city limits in which four or more people died. A massive blaze destroyed seven businesses on Main Street in May 1997, but no one was seriously injured in that fire.