John Thompson’s short life began in misfortune and ended in tragedy.
The 2-year-old, who was pulled from a burning house in Harrisburg Feb. 10, was pronounced dead Saturday after physicians determined the child had no brain activity, family members said.
He was pronounced dead at 2:51 p.m. at Children’s Hospital of Georgia, according to Richmond County Deputy Coroner Johnny McDonald.
The boy’s 21-year-old mother, Lateia Thompson, said she had decided to let her son be an organ donor. Funeral plans were on hold until after that process had been completed. She said the decision was difficult, but she wanted some good to come from her son’s death.
“I wanted to be able to save a baby or two if I could,” said Thompson, who was waiting with a group of family members at the hospital Saturday afternoon. “I know if it was the reverse situation, I would want someone to help my baby.”
Her son was born on a chilly day in January 2011. By then his father, John E. Howard Jr., had been dead almost six months, she said.
She had met Howard in August 2009. She was 17 and he was 19. A year later, Thompson was facing pregnancy alone. Howard was shot Aug. 20, 2010, by Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet during an early morning burglary at the judge’s home on Cumming Road.
Thompson said she knows Howard had a criminal record, but he was also working two jobs and taking college courses at the time of his death. She had hoped he could get his life in order.
“He did everything for me,” she said. “I wondered, how am I going to do it without him?”
She also wondered what she would say to her son when he was old enough to understand. She wishes that was still her greatest worry.
Even without his father in the picture, Thompson said, Howard’s family was still connected to his life. He was even learning to speak some Spanish from his paternal grandmother, who is Panamanian, she said.
Thompson said she struggled as a single mother living in public housing for a while until she was taken into the Harrisburg home of Sandra Cato last year. She has been dating Cato’s grandson, Michael Rowell, and was working part time, doing customer service and taking courses at the University of Phoenix, she said.
Thompson said most days she would work and go to school while her son stayed with a baby sitter across the street.
Evenings were a regular ritual of eating, “watching SpongeBob a million times” and a bath.
“I would sing him his bedtime songs,” she said, which included the Sura Al-Fatiha, the opening verse of the Quran. “Then he would put his teddy bear to sleep and he would go to sleep.”
Thompson said Feb. 10 had been a day of relaxation and play for the family. They spent some time at the park and with neighbors in the Harrisburg neighborhood before eating and watching a Batman movie at home. They had to go out at 7:45 p.m. to take her boyfriend to his mother’s place of work, she said. They would have ordinarily taken John along, but she said the boy was already asleep.
“That was the first time he fell asleep that early,” she said.
Rather than waking a sleeping baby, they left the boy in the front bedroom and asked a Cato relative, Bill Herrin, to keep an eye on him.
“He said, ‘Leave my door open and I’ll listen for him,’ ” Thompson said.
The group, which included Thompson, Rowell and Sandra Cato, was gone a little more than 30 minutes and was on the way back when Cato got a call that the house was on fire.
Thompson said they turned the corner onto Carr Street and saw the blaze. She jumped out to look for her son.
“John wasn’t outside. He was in the house,” she said. “I tried to go in but somebody stopped me.”
Thompson said she watched as firefighters broke their way into the bedroom through a window and pulled her little boy out of the billowing black smoke. He was handed to another firefighter and rushed to an ambulance.
“I saw John’s lifeless body,” she said. “That is something I never, ever wanted to see.”
The official cause of death was lack of oxygen to the brain and smoke inhalation. He also suffered second-degree burns to his face, arms and legs, McDonald said.
He said Richmond County fire investigators are still working to complete their investigation into the fatal blaze. Family and fire officials agree, however, the fire appeared to have started on the kitchen stove where someone had been cooking with hot oil.
C.A. Reid Sr. Memorial Funeral Home will be handling arrangements, according to family friend James Cato. A funeral date had not been set Sunday evening.
“A family member has donated a plot because the mother doesn’t have any money,” Cato said.
Family members said anyone who would like to help with the costs of the funeral can contact the funeral home.
Thompson said the past week has been a blur of hospital visits, talking with authorities and trying to come to grips with what has happened to her son.
“All of this doesn’t seem real,” she said, in a calm, almost cheerful, tone. She has been trying not to cry because of something her mother, Lateia Hyman, told her when she was younger.
“She always said that when someone dies, if you cry over them it tortures their soul,” she said. “John didn’t like to see me hurting. I don’t want to cause him any more pain.”