In Vicky Castro's living room sit a still-wrapped toy train and Play-Doh set that 3-year-old Alexander "Manny" Macklin will never get to open.
Castro pulled up to her Pennsauken home early Thursday night and went inside to grab the Christmas presents and some homemade pasteles for her next-door neighbors.
By the time she walked out, flames were bursting through the windows of her neighbors' home and the boy's mother, Ileana Gonzalez, was screaming for someone to "save Manny."
"There was no Manny to be found," Castro said yesterday, as Camden Avenue residents got their first daylight glimpse of the charred rubble and priests arrived to console the grieving.
Manny, whom firefighters found unconscious on the kitchen floor, was pronounced dead at Cooper University Hospital. His grandmother, Vielka Gonzalez, was transported to Crozer-Chester Medical Center's burn unit for inhalation burns. She was still in critical condition yesterday afternoon, according to a hospital spokesman.
"I think she's going to be OK," said Angel Flores, a close family friend who was on the scene yesterday.
The other family members in the home-located only three blocks from a fire station-were not seriously injured, authorities said.
Camden County Fire Marshal Paul Hartstein said the cause of the fire was still being investigated, but initial reports indicate that Manny had been playing with a candle near the Christmas tree.
"The family had stopped him from playing with a candle near the tree earlier in the day," Hartstein said.
Firefighters arrived at the burning home on Camden Avenue near Homer Avenue three minutes after the 9-1-1 call came in at 6:22 p.m., but the house was already engulfed in flames, according to Hartstein.
"The child was still in the house when firefighters got there," Hartstein said. "The family could not get back in."
"It was so terrible, nobody could have gotten in there," said Michelle Bevans, who lives on the corner.
Neighbors said that the fire spread with terrifying speed, quickly turning the house into an impenetrable inferno.
"Too fast, too fast," Castro said, recalling Manny's death through fresh tears.
"I've never seen anything like it - within seconds," said Kathy Hall, who was cleaning up after dinner when her husband told her the house across the street was on fire.
"Flames were coming out, windows were breaking, the Christmas lights were popping," said Hall, who brought out blankets and wet towels for Vielka Gonzalez.
The fire melted the siding of neighboring homes. Yesterday, the house was padlocked shut with a plywood door. Candles and stuffed animals had been placed on the steps, and a white teddy bear wore a shirt on which someone had written: "Jesus loves this family."
"He was a little happy kid, with long hair and a big ponytail," Flores said.
Hartstein said that the fatal fire underscores the importance of monitoring Christmas trees during the holiday season.
"They can burn like blowtorches," he said. "They can overwhelm a house in seconds." *