Several firefighters who rescued children and battled flames at a day care testified Tuesday in the Jessica Tata murder trial.
First up was Houston Fire Chief Mark Donovan, who told jurors Monday the details of the day they found the home burning and went to work to save the children inside.
Tata, 24, is on trial, charged with felony murder. Prosecutors said she left several children home alone with a pot of grease heating on a stove while she went shopping in 2011. When she got home, the house was on fire, officials said.
Four children were killed in the fire.
Senior Capt. David Swanson led the three-man search team that went into the burning home. He told the jury that he and his crew crawled on hands and knees and were unable to see through the thick smoke. They used a thermal camera to search for the children. He said that one of the men found a baby laying under a card table near the kitchen, but the rest of the men didn't know because of the poor visibility.
Swanson said he and firefighter Jonathan Robinson bumped into cribs in a back bedroom. That's where they found two children.
A neighbor told jurors Monday that Tata tried to save children who were inside her burning home day care.
Christian Wendeberg, who lived near the burning home, testified that he saw Tata dash into the house to rescue the children. He said she came out with two children, one of whom was unconscious. Both had suffered burns, he said.
Wendeberg shot cellphone video of the fire, too. He asked Tata how many children were inside the home when the fire started. She told him there were nine children in the home, Wendeberg said.
After seven children were pulled from the home, firefighters continued to search for two more children.
"We were told there were between seven and nine, so we were told to keep looking," firefighter Luis Carmona said.
Investigators said there were only seven children in the home and two of them were found in the back yard.
A second neighbor, Sandra Sawyer, also told a jury Monday that Tata told her that nine children were inside the home. Sawyer said she went through Tata's cellphone and read out the names of the children and their parents. That's when Tata realized that only seven children were there, Sawyer said.
Sawyer said she tried to assure Tata that the children would be OK, but Tata told her that the fire had been going on "a long time." Sawyer said Tata told her that she had been in the bathroom when the fire started and she passed out from the smoke.
Sawyer testified that she saw several of the children being carried out of the home by firefighters. Those children were covered in soot. Sawyer said she noticed that Tata did not have any soot on her clothing and she didn't smell like smoke.
Sawyer said she told Tata to call her mother, but Tata didn't want to do that.
"'Oh my God -- don't tell my mom,'" Sawyer said Tata told her. "'She's going to kill me. She didn't want me to have this day care in the first place.'"
Neighbor Michael McAndrews said Tata told him something odd while firefighters were battling the blaze and trying to rescue the children.
"'I don't need to be running a day care. I've got money,'" McAndrews said Tata told him.
Another neighbor, Cynthia Poursartip, said that Tata admitted to her that she wasn't home when the fire stated. When she asked why, Poursartip said Tata told her, "I will tell them that when I testify."
Firefighter Billy Harris told the jury that Tata also told him that she was in the house when the fire started. He said he asked Tata why her clothes were so clean. He said Tata told him that she tried to lead the kids out of the fire but they kept running in circles.
"I told her there was no way she could have been inside," Harris testified.
Harris said Tata did not have a response to that statement.
Tata did make a call to 911 when she saw the fire, officials said.
"They're dying. I can't see anything. I can't even go in there and get them," Tata told the 911 operator. "The kids are dying."
Four minutes before the fire started, security cameras caught Tata shopping at a nearby Target store. The video was shown to jurors.
Manager Ray Menzies testified Friday that he asked her to fill out a survey form, but was told, "She told me that she had grease on the stove. And she told me that it was on low, and that her sister was there with the kids. And would it be OK?"
"I told her by no means would it be OK," Menzies said.
He testified that Tata did not have any children with her.