Erikka Lee dropped her toddler off at her mother’s house on Thursday and watched as he had his favorite meal: two slices of cinnamon toast and a glass of warm chocolate milk.
Hours later, 3-year-old Karter Lee and two of his elderly relatives died in a devastating house fire in New Orleans East despite neighbors' and first responders' desperate efforts to save them.
The early morning blaze Friday in the one-story brick house at 7731 Wave Drive also hospitalized Karter’s 80-year-old grandfather.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
New Orleans Fire Department officials said the fire was the deadliest in the city since a blaze in a Broadmoor home in November 2014 killed five family members living there, including three children.
The latest fire left a close-knit family reeling at the loss of its longtime matriarch, 71-year-old Lorraine Lee; her 69-year-old brother, Louis Williams; and one of its newest members.
As Erikka Lee, 34, clutched a coffee cup on Friday morning, she stood in front of the charred remains of her parents’ house and remembered her 3-year-old son, the only one of four siblings inside when the fire happened.
"I miss my little angel," she said. "I'm trying to be strong for the kids."
The first 911 call about the blaze came in at 1:36 a.m., according to the Fire Department.
The Lees' neighbor across the street, Felters A. Veal, said he was arriving home after a night out with friends when he noticed fire shooting out of the house. He told his wife to call 911 while he grabbed a crowbar from his shed.
Veal said he and other neighbors could hear the boy’s screams for help coming from inside the house as he pried off the shutters and burglar bars from the house.
“Then I started calling out, but nobody ever came,” said Veal, an analyst for the state Department of Children and Family Services.
Veal went around to the back of the house but could not see anyone there either, he said. At that point, firefighters arrived.
Fire officials said the first crew got to the scene at 1:42 a.m. By that time the home was sending out heavy smoke and licks of flame. Forty-two firefighters battled the blaze until 2:22 a.m., when it was declared under control.
Lorraine Lee’s husband of 53 years, 80-year-old Louis Lee, was taken out of the house and ultimately transported to the Regional Burn Center in Baton Rouge, where he is in stable condition, according to relatives.
Karter Lee was taken out of the house in time for his mother to see paramedics making desperate efforts to revive him.
Erikka said a cousin who lives down the street from the fire called to tell her what was happening.
"When she called me, my heart was racing. I was shaking," she said.
Karter was transported to Tulane Medical Center but was pronounced dead there, she said.
The ferocious fire prompted a statement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who thanked the firefighters who tried to save the family.
“My heart aches for the victims and family of this tragic fire. It is hard anytime a tragedy like this happens, but it is especially hard during the holiday season. Our prayers remain for the elder who is fighting to recover and all family and friends impacted,” Landrieu said.
On Friday morning, relatives gathered on Wave Drive to remove what items they could from the house, which still had a string of Christmas lights dangling from its front eaves.
Many remembered Lorraine Lee, better known as “Sweet Lorraine” to family members.
Charisma Smith described her aunt Lorraine as the "matriarch" of the family, a former Hilton Riverside Hotel housekeeper who doled out gumbo and bell peppers to anyone who asked.
“She would call you fat after she feeds you, but she would make sure you’re full before she said that,” Smith said.
Lorraine’s brother Louis Williams was an Army veteran who lived in a front bedroom in the house. Her husband, Louis Lee, who survived the fire, is a disabled trucker who often serenaded his wife with oldies.
The family had celebrated Christmas inside the house, which they had owned since 1997 and rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, Erikka said.
Relatives said the fire was especially devastating for a family that spent all its holidays together. “To say 'Merry Christmas' one day, and the next day have to plan their funeral, it’s just…,” Smith said, her voice trailing off.
Erikka said she had broken down several times throughout the long Friday morning.
Her son’s favorite cartoon character was Mickey Mouse, she said. His 1½-year-old brother has yet to grasp their loss.
“He just kept saying his brother’s name, not knowing what’s going on,” she said.