Neighbors and firefighters hammered at the burning home with axes and a sledgehammer and struggled to pull the red-hot security bars off the windows, but in the end they were too late to save the boys.
Hours after fire consumed a home in the Green Meadows neighborhood of Los Angeles on Tuesday night — leaving a pair of 2-year-old twins dead and their father in critical condition — a witness recounted the chaotic scene as would-be rescuers broke windows and doors in a desperate attempt to reach the toddlers.
"It was horrible, horrible, horrible," said neighbor Malcolm Howard, 22.
The fire was reported at 9:05 p.m. in the 800 block of East 113th Street, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
At the time, Howard said he was standing outside his home talking to a friend when he heard a woman screaming. That's when he walked across the lawn, looked down the street and saw tall flames shooting from a home three doors down.
"The whole front was burning," Howard said. "It was bad."
Howard raced to the single-story, wood-frame home, where he saw the mother of the trapped boys, Charlotte Fortson, 24, standing outside with her 4-year-old daughter.
"My babies are inside the house, my babies are inside the house," the pregnant woman screamed.
Howard said he and another neighbor tried to pull the security bars off the windows, but the bars grew hotter and hotter before they gave up. Howard said he used a sledgehammer to smash a window where he thought the boys might be. Smoke billowed out.
"I couldn't see anything," he said.
At one point, the father of the boys, Benjamin Fortson, crawled from the flaming home, his face pink and burned, Howard said.
When fire crews arrived, they found the home "well-involved" and had difficulty entering the residence due to the window bars and security door, according to Margaret Stewart, a fire department spokeswoman.
After battling their way into the home, firefighters emerged from the flames carrying the boys. A firefighter began giving one little boy CPR, while another put the second boy on a gurney and rushed him to an ambulance.
On Wednesday morning, authorities confirmed that the boys had died. They were identified by relatives as Brenton and Braeson. Their 4-year-old sister, BreChelle, survived.
According to fire authorities, the property lacked mandatory smoke alarms or optional fire sprinklers, she said.
Los Angeles County property records show the home is owned by Nathaniel and Bennye Bullock.
Natasha Bullock, 42, a relative who lived at the home, said Wednesday that five families lived at the property, which includes a back house. She said no one was home except the children and their parents.
Bullock said that it was only hours before the fire that she saw the boys riding bicycles — presents that had received for Christmas. She said she recalled teasing one of the boys about a piece of bread he was eating.
On Wednesday morning, neighbors stood outside the gutted home and surveyed the smoldering remains.
A charred coffee table, a vase and a small bicycle with bent wheels lay near the broken front windows of the home. Nearby, a black security door — knocked down by the fire department — was propped up against two rocks.
L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the area, tweeted, "Our community mourns the loss of two of our precious Watts children who passed away last night. Please keep their family in your prayers."
Bullock said a vigil is planned Wednesday night outside the home.
1:15 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with details from witnesses and relatives.
9:05 a.m: This article was updated with more information about the response to the fire.