Fiery deaths for 6 inside a ‘House of Hope’

Jennifer Haggins grieves (left) as Micheldia Jones comforts her after she learned of the deaths of her friends. Two women and four men were killed early Monday, March 7, 2016, in a house fire in northwest Atlanta. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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Jennifer Haggins grieves (left) as Micheldia Jones comforts her after she learned of the deaths of her friends. Two women and four men were killed early Monday, March 7, 2016, in a house fire in northwest Atlanta. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

AJC staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

Whether you needed a ride to work or a place to sleep for the night, Ernest Eberhardt was your go-to guy. The 61-year-old never hesitated to help his northwest Atlanta neighbors or welcome others into his “House of Hope.”

“He took in everybody that didn’t have anywhere to go,” Jennifer Haggins, a longtime friend, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “You could come in and get a blanket and find yourself a place to sit down.”

Early Monday, Eberhardt had five overnight guests when fire erupted in his small Andrews Street home, causing the front roof to collapse and sending flames 30 feet into the air. None of the six people inside the home made it out alive.

“I’m in shock. I’m in shock.” Haggins said. “I’m just shocked.”

One by one, the bodies of two women and four men were pulled out of the home Monday morning by Fulton County medical examiners. The victims' names were not publicly released Monday, but those in the close-knit neighborhood knew without being told. Throughout the day, neighbors stood outside staring at the charred remains of where a three-bedroom house had stood since 1950.

By late Monday afternoon, investigators had not yet determined what started the fire, Sgt. Cortez Stafford with the Atlanta Fire Department said. But neighbors said the home did not have working heat, so space heaters were used. It had not yet been determined whether the home had a working smoke detector, Stafford said.

Next-door neighbor Tamara Johnson awoke around 4:40 a.m. to a boom so loud, she sat straight up in her bed. Through her window, she could see the flames. She grabbed her phone and called 911, then ran outside.

Johnson could only hope no one had been inside, but Eberhardt’s van was parked at the street, and a white car was right behind it, just steps away from the inferno. It was eerily quiet, Johnson said, except for the roaring flames. Within minutes, sirens filled the air and firetrucks lined the street.

Firefighters arrived to find the 1,700-square foot home fully engulfed, and the blaze spread quickly to nearby trees, Stafford said. The flames’ intensity and the roof’s collapse prevented firefighters from entering the home immediately to search for victims. Although the home had front and side doors, the back door was boarded up and blocked with items in the kitchen, neighbors said.

A Brother’s Heartbreak

News of the fire spread quickly down Andrews Street and around the corner onto Chappell Road, where Kimberly Wise said a 5 a.m. knock on the door startled her. There had been a fire at “Pop’s” house, the man she often relied on to take her to her job at a nearby hotel.

“He was like a father to me,” Wise said. “He just opened his doors to anyone.”

In the afternoon, relatives of others killed in the fire drove up to the home, visibly upset that no one had escaped.

“Was my brother in that house? Anthony Brown?” one man asked.

Quietly, onlookers nodded yes. The man walked away, weeping, before getting in the backseat of a car and leaving.

A Girlfriend’s Grief

Michelle Ferguson was still wearing her McDonald’s uniform when she ran from an SUV to the burned house. She’d been trying to call her boyfriend, Tony Jones, for several hours, but he didn’t answer. She last spoke with him around midnight, she said.

“Oh, Lord. Jesus,” Ferguson cried as neighbors rushed to her side.

Her boyfriend didn’t usually stay at Eberhardt’s, and she’d wanted him to come home. But Jones stayed because a friend had planned to help him fix his car, Ferguson said.

A House of Hope

Eberhardt, originally from Virginia, moved to Atlanta more than a decade ago to help care for two ill aunts, a cousin said Monday. Verga Glass, who lived two blocks away from Eberhardt, said after both aunts died, her cousin remained in the home, which she called the “House of Hope.” Eberhardt genuinely wanted to help others and never asked for money, but he would take it when offered to keep gas in his van.

Stacy Etheridge said her mother was married to Eberhardt until her death in 2006, and she still stopped by occasionally to check on him. Sometimes, her stepfather would be too busy to talk for long, but he always thanked her for coming. He’d hand her two dollars, if he had it.

A Generous Heart

Etheridge worried sometimes about Eberhardt being so giving to others.

“I always told him to be careful,” Etheridge said. “He still kept a good heart.”

But Atlanta police reported no recent calls to the home, except for one about a gas leak in 2011. No details were available Monday about that call.

Atlanta firefighters and the Red Cross plan to return to Andrews Street on Wednesday to provide smoke alarms for homes that need them.