'I didn't think he was going to make it'

Tyrese Thompson, 9, left, and his brother Cornell, 10, play video games in Tyrese's room at Levine Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte on Thursday.
Tyrese Thompson, 9, left, and his brother Cornell, 10, play video games in Tyrese's room at Levine Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte on Thursday.

Swadarrius Pressley and Darryl Coleman rushed back into their smoke-filled, burning apartment Saturday morning. Their mission: Save Tyrese Thompson.

"We made it to the entry of the kitchen, but all the fire came our way so we ducked," Swadarrius recalled. "We couldn't get him."

Firefighters on Saturday rescued an unconscious Tyrese from the apartment on West Main Street. The 9-year-old was revived and taken to Piedmont Medical Center and later Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, where he was listed in critical condition until Monday. He was released Thursday afternoon.

Officials rescued Swadarrius and Darryl, both 15, who had crawled through a window onto the roof. Cornell Thompson, Tyrese's 10-year-old brother, jumped from the roof into neighbors' arms.

The fire, ruled accidental, started in the kitchen, officials said. It left the Thompson family without a home and nearly all of their possessions.

"I feel like it was my fault because I left the stove on," said an emotional and now homeless Zanita Thompson, Tyrese's mother. "I could have lost three sons and a nephew."

Zanita Thompson worked her regular shift at Burger King on Friday night before cleaning her apartment. Around 11:25 p.m., Thompson's fiancé, J.C. Bowler, came in from work.

"We decided we were going to fry a couple pieces of fish," Thompson said.

Bowler put the fish in the sink to thaw. About 15 minutes later, Thompson went back to the kitchen.

"At that point, I put the grease on," she recalled. "I went back to the room to let him know we were fixing to cook."

Later, Thompson's 17-year-old son, Derrick Stradford, called from a restaurant. He had gotten off early from work and was ready to come home, she said.

"It slipped my mind," Thompson said about the pot and grease on the stove. "I left to go pick him up."

Thompson and Bowler left just before midnight, she said.

Meanwhile, Cornell and Tyrese were sleeping in a bedroom adjacent to the kitchen as Swadarrius chatted with his girlfriend on a cell phone and watched TV with his cousin, Darryl.

Then, an alarm started beeping.

"At first, we didn't know what was going on," Swadarrius said. "My cousin said, 'Go look and see what's going on.' I opened the door, and all the smoke came in the room."

Cornell met Swadarrius and Darryl in the hall.

"He told us there was a fire in the kitchen," Swadarrius said. "He told us Tyrese was right behind him. We put Cornell on the roof. We told him he had to jump down."

Neighbor Joette Turner and her brother-in-law caught Cornell as Darryl and Swadarrius looked on from the roof. But there was a problem.

"We didn't see Tyrese, so we went back in," Swadarrius said.

The teens battled thick smoke en route to the kitchen before flames forced them back from the room where they thought Tyrese was. Then, the teens heard several crashes from the kitchen.

"We thought everything had fallen on Tyrese," Swadarrius said.

They returned to the roof but were determined to save Tyrese, a cousin who was reared like a brother.

"I lifted Darryl up and put him on the big part of the roof so he could walk around to Cornell and Tyrese's room window," Swadarrius said. "He got over there and busted the window out. All the smoke -- he couldn't see nothing. It was black."

As Darryl broke other windows in vain, Swadarrius called 911 and his mother. Meanwhile, Rock Hill firefighters arrived around 12:15 a.m. and found Darryl and Swadarrius perched atop the roof.

Ten feet below, Turner pointed to the room where Tyrese was sleeping. A group of firefighters rounded the house to that window while others hoisted a ladder near one of the teens on the roof.

"We told them that we weren't coming down until they got Tyrese," Swadarrius recalled.

But Turner told the teens to come off roof. Darryl went down the ladder first. Then, Swadarrius came down. Meanwhile, officials found Tyrese on the floor beside his bedroom.

At 12:20 a.m., Thompson, Bowler and Derrick arrived to a street blocked by police cars and fire trucks.

"The first person I saw was Joette," Thompson said. "She said, 'It's one of your babies.' I passed out."

When Thompson came to, she asked which child was hurt, Turner said.

"I told her it was the baby," Turner said. Thompson fainted again.

Shortly after Thompson came to the second time, a firefighter called her to a stretcher in the middle of the street that carried Tyrese.

"I thought he was burned from head to toe," Thompson said. "I didn't think he was going to make it. At that time, he wasn't breathing."

Officials found a pulse and whisked Tyrese off to PMC. He was later transferred to CMC.

Tyrese was not burned during the fire. On Thursday, he was released from the hospital.

"He talks with a scratchy voice," Thompson said. "His breathing is still shallow."

Saturday's fire isn't the first time Tyrese and Cornell have had a close call. On Dec. 28, 2002, the brothers were hit by a car. The incident left Tyrese with a body cast on his left side, and Cornell had to relearn how to walk, Thompson said.

"They got hit together," she said. "They were in a fire together."

Thompson, who lost all of her possessions in Saturday's fire, quickly admits that the boys were spared for a reason. Then, for the first time in a while, she smiled through her tears.

"I'm blessed," she said. "My baby is still here."

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