The sound of children’s laughter often filled the air on Devonne Drive in the Starrville community as little ones played in the front yard of a small house, jumping on a trampolines, riding bikes and running around. Neighbors said this was a regular sight, especially on hot, sunny days.
Five-year-old boy Elyjia Anthony Dame Newman, 2-year-old boy Travis Everrette Harris and 1-year-old girl Saphira Khalessi Rose Harris are the children that neighbors will never forget.
On Monday morning, as gray smoke came from the small home, 24-year-old Brittany Stewart, the children’s mother, died in the fire that destroyed the home, behind Starrville Church of the Living God off of Highway 271, and also took the lives of her young kids.
Stewart and the children lived with her boyfriend Edwin Harris, 31.
Neighbors Doris and Cliff Wright said Harris is a mechanic, who is also the father of the youngest children, Travis and Saphira. He survived the blaze with non-life threatening injuries.
On Monday, a volunteer White Oak firefighter who was in the area stopped to help Harris who was attempting to put the fire out and rescue family members inside the burning home. Firefighters took about three hours to extinguish the flames.
Doris and Cliff Wright, who have lived in the Starrville area since the early ‘80s, spoke fondly of the children.
“When we would come by, sometimes we would stop and talk to them. The little ones, we would see them outside playing and we would stop and carry on little conversations with them,” Doris Wright said.
“We would always see him (Harris) out here working on a vehicle or what have you, out here in the yard. We would stop ever-so-often and talk to him a little bit,” she continued. “Some of it (the conversation) was the kids, some of it was what he does for a living and him working on the vehicles.”
The Wrights said the family moved in after obtaining the house from James Harris, landlord and uncle to Harris, survivor of the fire.
“When we seen the smoke, James Harris did not know it. I called him and asked him if he knew about the fire and he said no he did not. So I told him, ‘Well, your house is on fire and I don’t know if everybody made it out or not.’ He said he’ll be right out here, so apparently he must’ve come on out,” Doris Wright said.
Later that day, the Wrights said they saw the news and learned the incident was fatal.
“When we found out that the mother and the three babies perished in the fire, it hit us pretty hard. It was a very tragic loss. It’s a sad situation to know that they lost their life in a tragic accident,” Doris Wright said.
The Wrights do not remember seeing the children playing in the snow, as they stayed in because of the weather.
“They (the children) would be playing with the little toys out here, and two of them were playing on the trampoline at times and they would just be outside on the yard playing when it was warm,” she said.
Other neighbors said most of the residents in the neighborhood stay by themselves most of the time, but they recalled always waving at the family when they were seen outside.
“We seen them move in … They were always waving and being real nice. It’s terrible about the kids,” Cliff Wright said. “They seemed like, all around, they seemed like really good people. They were real nice.”
The Wrights also mentioned there had been another house fire in the neighborhood a few months ago.
Since the fire, Harris’ brother, Eddie Harris, has set up a Gofundme page to help Edwin after the loss of his family. The fundraiser has a goal of $50,000 and it has raised over $5,300 as of Friday.
When news of the fire came out, several commenters expressed sympathy and said they were praying for the family. Some neighbors declined to comment as they said it was too sad to talk about.
Earlier this week, Smith County Fire Marshal Jay Brooks encouraged people to check their smoke detectors to make sure they are working.
“Smoke detectors save lives,” Brooks said. “Especially during this time of year when people use space heaters, wood burning stoves and other heating devices to stay warm. We want everyone to have smoke detectors and make sure they are working to stay safe.”