PHILADELPHIA -- Merion Elementary School custodian John Fowler was chatting in the school library yesterday when he heard the first "thud." He thought the motor might have blown in the rooftop air conditioning and heating unit.
Seconds later Mr. Fowler, 48, heard a second thud, followed by shouts and screaming. That's when he ran into reading specialist Ivy Weeks. The two hurried toward the commotion.
They saw a small boy engulfed in flames running toward them -- second-grader David Rutenberg, 7. Trying to smother the flames, Ms. Weeks caught the boy in a bear hug and fell with him to the floor.
"I grabbed him and stuffed his head under my arm and put out the fire on his hair," Ms. Weeks said.
"I had on a silk sweater, and it started to melt on me and him. I stood to pull it off -- I was standing in my underwear. . . . I don't know if David was wearing a synthetic material or he had jet fuel on him, but I couldn't get the fire out using my hands or clothes."
Mr. Fowler threw a denim jacket around David and Ms. Weeks to finally extinguish the flames.
David was airlifted to the burncenter at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland, where he arrived at 1 p.m. He was later listed in critical condition with burns over more than two-thirds of his body.
At another hospital, Ms. Weeks was released after being treated for burns on her neck, hair and face.
Mr. Fowler returned to the suburban Lower Merion school after being treated for hand and wrist burns at Lankenau Hospital. "These people are my family. I wanted to make sure that everyone else was all right and see what was going on and see what else I could do."
He had a big bandage wrapped around his right wrist and hand and was still wearing a green hospital smock with no shirt underneath.
The scene at the school was full of "little tiny horrible ghoulish details," said Jill Bressler, who happened to be driving by at the time.
Ms. Bressler, 44, a child psychologist for Bala Cynwyd Middle School, stopped to help a young girl who was sprawled on a charred slope outside the school.
"We turned over the body, and the clothes were all burning. We pulled them off," Ms. Bressler said.
Efforts to resuscitate the girl were unsuccessful, Ms. Bressler said.
Principal Marvin Gold's administrative office looked like a disaster-relief center. School nurses fromaround the district arrived as part of the Lower Merion School District's emergency plan. Police and fire officials came and went. The phone rang incessantly.
As word of the crash spread, grim-faced parents rushed to the scene. They clung to their children as they never had before.
Parent Carol Morgan arrived still wearing a smock and a towel in her hair from an appointment at a nearby beauty salon.
Sherry Horowitz, a lawyer from Wynnewood, came directly from work.
Ms. Horowitz has two children in the school, 6-year-old Marc, a first-grader, and 9-year-old David, a third-grader. Both children were unharmed, although Marc scratched his hand on a wire fence. In a hallway outside the principal's office, Ms. Horowitz hugged the dazed child and they collapsed in a heap, with her kissing him.
Classes for today were canceled.
In a statement issued last night, Superintendent James Pugh said, "First of all, our hearts and prayers go out to families of two children [who were killed]. Words cannot convey the feeling of the entire staff about that. Sometimes people don't recognize that the staff of the school looks at the schoolchildren as their own. It's a deep and personal loss."