HOUSTON - Jessica Tata broke down in tears Friday when her 911 call from a fatal fire at her home day care was played in court.
Tata, 24, is on trial for felony murder after four children died in a 2011 fire at her day care.
Tata called 911 after she returned from a shopping trip to find her day care in flames with children trapped inside. She started sobbing as it started to play.
"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."
Tata and two neighbors tried to get in through a window and the back door, but were turned back by heavy smoke. Tata was able to pull one of the children to safety out of a back door, a witness said.
"Oh my God. Please help me. Oh my God, please help me. Oh my God, I don't know what to do," Tata said on the 911 call.
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.
Menzies said she left within 10 seconds, but did not appear to be frantic or hurried. Store cameras showed that she didn't go directly to her car, but stopped and lingered on the way out at a Starbuck's counter in the store. When she arrived home, the daycare was on fire.
Tata was charged with four counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Prosecutors say Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping. While she was at Target, a fire broke out in the kitchen when oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner ignited. Three children were also seriously injured in the blaze.
Tata's attorneys say she didn't intend to hurt the children. Defense attorneys say murder charges are excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
Tata initially told authorities she was in the home's bathroom when the fire happened. DeGeurin, Tata's attorney, attributed her lie to immaturity.
Legal experts say that if prosecutors can prove the deaths occurred because she abandoned the children to go shopping, they don't need to prove intent to harm to secure a murder conviction. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony and that action led to the death.
After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month, returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed. She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months, Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, and Elias Castillo, 16 months, died in the fire at Jackie's Child Care on Crest Park at Waypark Drive shortly before 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2011. Three other children were injured. Tata is standing trial for felony murder first for the youngest of the victims -- Elias Castillo.
Tata's trial is expected to last about a month.
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