CUMBERLAND -- With windows shattering and flames shooting out of the front of their two-story home early yesterday morning, 11-year-old Clara Miller and her 9-year-old stepbrother, Richard Sluss, stood on the roof of their front porch.
Clara jumped. Richard -- a good athlete -- did not. He went back inside. No one knows for sure why, but it is likely he was trying to save his two stepsisters, 4-year-old Britany Vanetta and 14-year-old Brandi Miller, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair.
When firefighters were able to get into the house, they found the bodies of Richard and his two sisters huddled together in a second-floor bedroom, apparently overcome by smoke.
"Ricky was real close to his sister Brandi," said neighbor Debbie Hochard. "I don't think he would have left her for any reason."
The children were killed in a fire that broke out shortly before 1 a.m. yesterday in the living room of their single-family home on Lafayette Avenue in south Cumberland.
Clara and her 3-year-old stepbrother, Jon Chris Vanetta, survived. Clara was treated for minor injuries at Cumberland Memorial Hospital and released. Jon was in guarded condition at the hospital with burns and respiratory problems.
The father, Jon Vanetta, 28, who was at home, also survived. He was treated for minor injuries at the hospital and released. The mother, Lura Miller, 30, was working at her parents' bar and restaurant, Dick and Clara's -- one block away -- at the time the fire broke out.
The cause of the fire was a kerosene heater that was placed too close to flammable material, said Cumberland Fire Department Capt. Earl E. Royce. "Instead of being in the middle of a room, it was near a wall that had paneling and curtains," he said.
Mrs. Hochard, a lifelong friend of Mrs. Miller, said the mother had only bought the kerosene heater Tuesday.
The house had a smoke detector but with no batteries, Captain Royce said. The house was destroyed, fire officials said.
Mr. Vanetta tried to put the fire out with water from a sink but failed, fire officials said. He ran from the house with his 3-year-old son.
After interviews with the family and neighbors, fire officials believe that Richard probably went back in to save his siblings.
"He looked out for the other kids," Capt. Charles England said. "It's possible he thought about his stepsister in the wheelchair. He went back in but he never came out."
David Collins was at Dick and Clara's bar and restaurant on Virginia Avenue when someone came in screaming about the fire. "I came running out of the bar and saw the front of the house was totally on fire," he said. "I went around back to see if I could get in the back door, and the windows blew out. It nearly knocked me over."
Mr. Collins said he believes the only reason Richard would have gone back was to save his siblings. "He was really athletic, great in sports, and was gutsy enough to do something like that," he said.
Mrs. Hochard, 28, woke up in her home across the street when she heard the windows explode. She looked out of the window and saw flames everywhere and called the fire company.
"I could hear the kids screaming," she said.
She ran down the stairs and went outside. "I could barely open the front door because it was so hot," she said. "It was hard to breathe outside."
Mrs. Hochard said she found the youngest child crying on the sidewalk. "The girl [Clara] was hiding in their car," she said. "I told her to get out and come across the street with me."
For Mrs. Hochard, it was like a family tragedy. Her 8-year-old son, Jonathan, played football with Richard, both in the streets and on a team in the Cumberland Good Fellowship Club's Pee Wee League. Her daughter, Melissa, is a cheerleader in the Pee Wee League with Clara.
And her youngest son, 4-year-old Chris, was very close to Britany. "They would hold hands and tell each other that they were going to get married," she said.
"My kids have grown up with her kids," Mrs. Hochard said. "Now they can't do that any more."