NEW ELLENTON - In the smoke-laced glare of a midnight fire, Eddie Bryant broke through the den window of his burning home to save his mentally and physically disabled daughter and stepson who were trapped inside.
Hampered by a heavy cast on his right wrist, Mr. Bryant clambered into the den. Thick smoke blinded him. He didn't see his daughter, Tammy Rochelle Bryant, 25, lying on the floor just a few feet from where he stood.
"That was my first thought - get the children out," said Mr. Bryant, 62, a retired radiation contamination inspector at Savannah River Site. "I didn't realize she was right over there. Probably too late anyway."
Mr. Bryant's daughter and stepson, Kevin Caldwell, 32, a wheelchair-user, died of apparent smoke inhalation early Wednesday in the blaze that destroyed the family's brick home at 525 Summit Drive, said Aiken County Chief Deputy Coroner Tim Carlton. Both were declared dead at the scene at 12:30 a.m.
"My children were lost," Mr. Bryant said. "Smoke got them."
The fatal fire was apparently sparked by a wood-burning furnace in a utility room at the rear of the house, the home's sole source of heat, said Mr. Bryant.
The blaze destroyed a nearby electrical panel, plunging the smoke-filled dwelling into darkness.
Mr. Bryant, the owner of Bryant's Fish and More on Main Street in New Ellenton, was disinfecting display cases for the weekly supply of fresh fish at his store when the fire started shortly after midnight.
He said his wife, Bernice Bryant, 57, tried to escape the blaze through the seldom-used front door with her daughter, but couldn't open it. As the two women walked toward the back door, Tammy Bryant fell in the den, which is also at the rear of the 21-year-old home, Mr. Bryant said.
Mrs. Bryant, who is physically impaired by a stroke, said she couldn't find her daughter in the smoke-filled room to help her to safety.
"She fell down," Mrs. Bryant said. "House was dark and there was no way I could find her." Mr. Caldwell was trapped in his bedroom at the rear of the house, said Mr. Bryant, who rushed to his burning house after his wife called him from a neighbor's home about 100 yards south on the isolated dirt road.
"I jumped in the car, but before I could get to the house, I could see the blaze," he said.
His stepson had cerebral palsy, Mr. Bryant said, and couldn't get out of bed to escape the smoke and flames.
When firefighters from the New Ellenton Volunteer Fire Department broke through Mr. Caldwell's bedroom window to remove him from the burning house, he still had a pulse, Mr. Bryant said, but he died in the ambulance.
It took several hours for firefighters to recover the body of his daughter, who was disabled at birth by brain damage, he said. The blaze was not completely extinguished until about 3 a.m., New Ellenton fire Cadet Brandon Smith said. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Cadet Smith said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Bryant returned to the charred hulk that was once his home, holding a childhood picture of his daughter as he stood in the den where her body was found.
Through the scorched frame of her bedroom wall, the twin posts of a headboard framed a silk flower wreath of burgundy and green.
"They were both handicapped, but they were happy children," said Mr. Bryant of his daughter and stepson. "Everybody liked Tammy - she was a sweet child."
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