2 Boys Escape Tennessee Fire that Killed Family

Published September 29, 2010

ATOKA, Tenn. – A fire was burning around him, but Devon Byrd said he didn't wake up until he heard his sister screaming.

The 12-year-old boy said he jumped out of bed early Tuesday in the smoky darkness and found his 6-year-old brother Andon. He kicked out a bedroom window with his bare feet and escaped the raging fire that killed his mother, her boyfriend, his two young half-sisters and the girls' grandmother.

"I was tossing and turning, I had fallen asleep," Devon told The Associated Press by telephone on Tuesday, hours after the mobile home fire in Atoka, about 25 miles northeast of Memphis. "I heard my sister screaming and that's how I woke up.

"I felt a lot of heat on my face but I couldn't see because there was a lot of smoke. I got my brother as quickly as I could."

After breaking the window, Devon ran to a neighbor's house, bleeding from cuts on his legs and wrist from the broken glass. Firefighters arrived shortly after 2:30 a.m. to see the double-wide mobile home engulfed in flames.

They knew people were in the house and repeatedly tried to rescue them but the flames were too intense, Munford-Atoka Fire Chief J.R. Bonson said. The cause was not made official Tuesday, but Police Chief Jessie Poole said it could have started in a grill that had been left unattended on a wooden deck.

Devon's mother, Desiree Mary Vinas Byrd, could have escaped but went back into the burning home to get her two daughters. Firefighters pulled her out alive a short time later but she died at the scene, with helpless neighbors watching.

"There was nothing that could be done," said neighbor Mike Patterson, 30.

The victims were identified by authorities as sisters Jaylan Vinas, 1, and Rylan Vinas, who would have turned 3 on Wednesday; their 31-year-old mother Desiree Mary Vinas Byrd; their father, Chris Akins, 28, who was Desiree's boyfriend; and Akins' mother, 48-year-old Sharon Hasara.

Devon needed 53 stitches on his feet, legs and wrist, but Andon was uninjured, his grandmother Michaellynn Vinas told AP. Both boys were treated at a hospital and released into her care.

"This is definitely the worst case I've seen," said Bonson, a 20-year veteran of the fire department. "It definitely affects you psychologically."

Atoka is a town of about 7,500 people in rural Tipton County. Locals described it as a close-knit community, and Poole said a fund has been set up to gather donations to help the families of Akins and Hasara.

Firefighters continued the investigation in the charred home Tuesday afternoon, the remains of an above-ground swimming pool in the front yard evidence that a family with children once lived there.

The two boys who escaped lived with their mother, who was separated from their 30-year-old father, Brandon Byrd.

Brandon Byrd, who lives in the neighboring town of Munford, said he received a 3 a.m. phone call from Devon.

"He told me the house was on fire and he had to kick the window out, and he's safe and his brother's safe, but he's not sure about momma," Byrd said.

"I'm very thankful my sons were able to get out," he said.

Neighbor Patricia Parimore said the boys came to her house after escaping and Devon Byrd had been cut.

"He had blood all over his little legs," she said. "Those little boys are going to suffer all the way around."

Brandon Byrd, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a 2004 trampoline accident, said he recently lost his home nursing care through TennCare, the state's expanded Medicaid program.

"Without Tennessee's help, they're going to have to put me in a nursing home and they won't have their mother or their father," he said.

However, Michaellynn Vinas said the boys would stay with her.

Brandon Byrd said he respected Akins for taking care of his sons.

"He was a good person," Byrd said while surrounded by his sister, who along with a volunteer nurse have been caring for him since he lost his insurance. "Two innocent little girls lost their life, too."

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Associated Press writers Randall Dickerson, Erik Schelzig and Rose French contributed to this report from Nashville.

Written by ADRIAN SAINZ, Associated Press Writer

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