Hastings, MI –

By John Agar, The Grand Rapids Press

After recently leaving a women’s shelter, Tasha Howard thought she had turned the corner.

The single mother of two had a new home, and a second interview this week for a waitressing job.

Her 4-year-old daughter, Rachel, was thrilled to have her own bedroom — filled with toys, including Elmo and her scooter.

“This is my room,” she said proudly, on a videotape taken last week as they moved into their new place — a rented mobile home just north of Hastings.

“(Howard) finally got a heads-up in life and now this happens,” her friend, Leslie Kendall, said Wednesday.

Howard, 21, and her children — Rachel Majewski and 9-month-old Bradley Hammond — were critically injured Tuesday night in an explosion and fire that destroyed their home at Merlino’s Hidden Valley Estates on Barber Road. The boy suffered the worst injury, with burns covering 90 percent of his body.

They were flown by helicopter to Spectrum Health Regional Burn Center at the Blodgett campus, where all were in critical condition today.

The fire erupted around 6:30 p.m., some time after a maintenance worker installed a propane stove and Howard complained about a gas leak. The fire gutted the mobile home, leaving only the frame of a baby crib and the water heater standing. Jars of baby food were among the charred ruins.

Mobile home park residents tried to stay hopeful. They were amazed at the bravery of 15-year-old neighbor Terry Miller, who entered the house three times to rescue the children. Other neighborhood children also helped out with the injured children.

On Wednesday, they started collecting money and clothing for the family. They made donation cans to put in area businesses.

“You just have a big bunch of kids that did it — you saw more kids helping than the adults,” said Terry Miller’s mother, Cathy, who, after the fire, stood in a cool shower with Rachel and her mother until rescuers arrived.

Authorities believe Howard touched off the propane-fueled blaze when she lit a cigarette in her gas-filled home.

After a maintenance worker installed the stove, Howard complained about the odor of propane. She was told to open windows to ventilate the home. Later, she used a lighter to light the cigarette.

Neighbors insisted that Howard kept the windows open at least two hours before the blast, and blamed park management for not telling Howard and her children to get out until the source of the leak could be determined.

“It’s not fair what’s being said about that mother, it’s not right,” Cathy Miller said.

Park manager Dean Fletcher said he and the maintenance worker felt terrible about the fire. He said he spoke to the fire victim soon after the fire.

“She said she was told to let it air out for an hour or two. She waited 45 minutes to an hour. She said, ‘I didn’t even think about it until I lit a cigarette in the house.'”

After the report of propane fumes, the maintenance worker turned off the inside valve to the stove, but did not turn off the outside valve.

Fletcher insisted the home was “sound,” and disputed allegations by neighbors that windows and a rear door would not open. While neighbors said Howard tried to get fumes out of the home, Fletcher said others have said she closed the door and turned on an air conditioner.

“I know a lot of them are blaming me. I wasn’t anywhere near the trailer,” he said. “I want to know what happened, and anything I can do to help. I have a commitment to manage the park and make it run smoothly, but I’m a human being.

Hastings Fire Chief Roger Caris said he hoped at some point to talk to Howard. “We’re getting conflicting stories here, now,” he said.

Foul play is not suspected. Investigators have been unable to pinpoint leaks that could have led to the explosion.

Kendall said her friend, originally from Middleville, had lived in Lake Odessa before moving to the Hastings area.

“Right now, their condition is very critical, at least for 72 hours.”

She said the baby has a 5 percent chance of survival, while the girl is doing much better.

After the explosion, Howard, who suffered serious burns to her face, hands and feet, only was concerned about her children. She got outside and screamed, “Go get my baby, go get my baby.”

Her children were her life, said her sister, Tonya Howard. Her daughter liked to take care of her baby brother, and brushed the little hair that he had.

In the hospital, the girl asked, “Where’s my brother? I want to cuddle my brother.”

The children would not have gotten out without the help of Terry Miller, who happened to be outside. He ran inside and found the girl, burned and crying, at the kitchen table, and handed her to his sister. He went back for the baby, but could not see through smoke. He went in a third time, and found the baby by his crying.

Miller, who was unhurt, didn’t have a lot to say. At his mother’s urging, he showed the path he took to save the children. “He told us, he just did what he had to do,” his mother said.