Hours after losing his wife, his two young daughters, his dog and his house in a fire, Brent Patterson returned to his Gwinnett County neighborhood without a coat or shoes.
“They’re dead,” he told Channel 2 Action News as tears streamed down his face. “My whole life is over. My whole life is over.”
The fire that killed Patterson’s wife, Kathy, and the couple’s 9- and 12-year-old daughters appears to have been wind-driven and flames spread rapidly through the home, Gwinnett fire spokesman Tommy Rutledge said Wednesday.
“The fire was so intense,” he said, “firefighters could not immediately enter the structure. They had to battle this blaze from outside.”
And they did not find the body of one of the children until 5:30 a.m. Wednesday — nine hours after dispatchers received calls reporting the blaze. She was found in debris.
A team of firefighters, investigators and crime scene technicians from the Gwinnett County Police Department worked through the night to find the girl’s body.
They returned to the scene in the 1000 block of Pointer Ridge on Wednesday to determine what caused the blaze.
‘A loud, popping sound’
Dispatchers received calls reporting the blaze about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Rutledge said.
“We arrived on the scene [and] found a two-story house on a slab engulfed in flames,” he said.
Firefighters were met outside the home by Patterson. He was screaming, Rutledge said.
Patterson told firefighters his family was on the second floor.
He said his wife and girls were upstairs getting ready for bed when he heard a loud, popping sound.
Patterson went downstairs to investigate and discovered the fire.
“He hollered back up to his wife and two children to get out of the house,” Rutledge said.
Patterson went outside. His wife and children were unable to escape.
“I couldn’t get back in,” Patterson told Channel 2 on Wednesday. “There was nothing I could do.”
Rutledge said: “He made attempts to re-enter the home to save his family, but was forced back due to intense heat and flames. A neighbor tried to assist him with entering from the home, but was unsuccessful.”
The home was equipped with one smoke alarm on the second floor. Patterson “did not remember ever hearing the alarm sound during the fire,” Rutledge said.
Neighbor Charles Fleck told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he and his wife gave Patterson, who was covered in soot, a blanket.
“We had seen the house on fire, amazingly on fire,” Fleck said. “When we went around to check it out, we could see the husband was distraught.”
Preliminary investigation: No foul play suspected
The blaze appears to have started in a first-floor living room, in the area of an electric-powered reclining couch, Rutledge said.
The couch was across the wall from the fireplace, which was burning at the time of the blaze. Within the same room, there were lamps positioned on either side of the couch.
The fire quickly extended to the second floor via a heat return vent and a mechanical/HVAC closet, Rutledge said.
“Fire investigators say that burn patterns and witness accounts match their findings and that no foul play is suspected at this point,” he said. “Please keep in mind that the information is preliminary.”
The exact cause of the fire is still unknown and remains under investigation, Rutledge said.
Church to pray for Patterson family
Patterson was treated at the scene for minor injuries.
Crews could not immediately find one of his daughters.
Rutledge said firefighters from the department’s technical rescue team had to be called in during the night to shore up walls on the main level of the home that were believed to be unstable.
Once the walls were secured, firefighters were able to recover the girl Wednesday morning.
The bodies of all three victims were turned over to the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner.
Authorities also found the family’s dog. They buried the dog in the backyard “as a show of respect due to the overwhelming loss sustained by the family,” Rutledge said.
Neighbors told The AJC Brent and Kathy Patterson “completely lived for their kids. Halloween, Christmas, all the holidays. Great, great parents.”
They gathered at 5 p.m. at Tucker First United Methodist Church to pray for the Patterson family.
Principal releases statement
Dr. Marketa Myers, principal of Nesbitt Elementary School, released a statement expressing sorrow for the loss of the two girls, who were fifth and third grade students.
“While this tragic incident did not occur at school, we wanted to make sure you were aware of this loss so that that we can work together to help our students through this difficult time,” Myers wrote. “In order to help our students, we had a team of counselors at our school. These trained professionals met with students and talked to them, helping them work through their feelings of loss.”
Myers added school officials also tried to call the parents of the classmates of the two girls.