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Woman dead in Minnesota house fire, her 1-year-old son in grave condition

St. Paul firefighters work at the scene of Wednesday morning’s fatal fire in a fourplex in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. The cause of the fire, which was confined to the first floor, remains under investigation. St. Paul Pioneer photo by Scott Takushi.1 / 2
Fire victim Tiffany Alexander, 27, was “a really good mother.” She's pictured with her 1-year-old son, William, who was in grave condition after suffering burns and smoke inhalation. Submitted photo.2 / 2
ST. PAUL -- When a severely injured woman made it out of a burning St. Paul house, holding her 2-year-old grandson, she pleaded with a neighbor to help: Her daughter and other grandchildren were still inside.

But the smoke of the Wednesday morning fire was too thick, and the 27-year-old daughter died. Her mother, along with two children, were hospitalized with serious burns and smoke inhalation; one child’s injuries were so extensive he might not survive, said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.

Firefighters heard rumors that a child was missing when they arrived at the Payne-Phalen fourplex, but they thoroughly searched the building and did not find the girl, who is the 3-year-old daughter of the woman who died. A relative later said the girl had not been at the home at the time of the fire and police confirmed she was with her father.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” said neighbor Nicole Shelton as she wept soon after the fire.

The woman who died, Tiffany Alexander, was a “really good mother,” said Fanchon Shelton, Nicole’s sister.

Alexander’s 1-year-old son William is the child most seriously injured.

The others injured were Alexander’s 47-year-old mother, Thereza “Tessie” Alexander, and Thereza’s 2-year-old grandson, Gabe, who is the son of Tiffany’s brother. They were taken to Regions Hospital.

“We have two babies in the emergency room and we don’t know if one is going to make it — that’s William,” said Lisa Wright, Thereza Alexander’s sister, on Wednesday night. She said Gabe and Thereza were burned over 10 to 15 percent of their bodies.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. “We are working with the fire department to determine whether there’s anything criminal involved in this tragedy,” Steve Linders, a St. Paul police spokesman, said Wednesday afternoon.Firefighters were called to the residence at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday.

Fanchon Shelton was sitting in the front room of her apartment above the Alexander family’s unit when she saw smoke coming from the side of the building. She went downstairs to tell them the house was on fire, but there was no answer. She twisted the doorknob, and it “opened right up, and all the smoke came out, but I didn’t hear anything,” Shelton said.Nicole Shelton was sleeping when she heard her sister scream, “Get out of the house right now!” She broke out her window and saw Thereza Alexander coming out the back door. Alexander was trying to call to her but was struggling to talk.

 Alexander was holding her grandson Gabe before she collapsed in the snow with the boy on top of her. The woman’s hair had been scorched off, and both the woman and child were so burned that “their skin was melting off of them,” said Nicole Shelton, who ran to help and called 911.  Shelton said she also tried to go in the family’s apartment, but there “was a big ball of fire right there moving so fast that I couldn’t go in.”  Firefighters were told of people trapped inside, and their first priority was searching for and rescuing them, Zaccard said. They found Tiffany Alexander, who was pronounced dead at the scene, the first fire fatality of the year in St. Paul. Paramedics rushed the three injured people to Regions.  “It doesn’t take much toxic smoke to impair somebody from escaping and even taking their life, as we found out here today,” Zaccard said about two hours after the fire. “… There’s one child that’s fighting for his life right now. We’re hoping and praying that he makes it.”  Firefighters put out the blaze, which was confined to the first floor, in about 15 minutes.  People who knew the family were grief-stricken as they tried to make sense of what happened.

 A relative established a fundraising site for the Alexander family, writing that “Tiffany’s family is in shock and deeply saddened by her sudden loss. … Tiffany has left behind a 3 year old daughter and a 1 year old son, who will now grow up without their mother, if the boy survives. The children will now be raised by family members, many of whom do not have the resources to pay the very real financial obligations that come with a new family member.”  Fanchon Shelton described the family as “very good people.” She said Thereza Alexander is the building’s caretaker and, when Shelton moved in four years ago, Alexander was already living there. 

The rental property’s owners recently installed smoke alarms, according to the Shelton sisters, but they said they didn’t hear them going off as the fire burned.  The city of St. Paul last inspected the fourplex in February 2016 and found no major issues. The building remains in good standing with the city, according to the Department of Safety and Inspections. It wasn’t due for another inspection until the end of this year.