On Christmas morning, Barbara Hardwick sat inside a Cherry Hill hospital, staring at a face she fell in love with decades ago when doctors first placed her daughter, Sandra, in her arms.
"She was my little Pee Wee," Hardwick said. "She had a little old face, a button nose, and the cutest little mouth."
Those memories became a gift yesterday, when Barbara Hardwick looked at her daughter's lifeless, burned body and charred hair, and saw only the face that brought her joy on Dec. 16, 1961.
"She just looked so peaceful," Hardwick said. "I was just waiting and waiting for her to wake up."
Fire officials in Cherry Hill said Sandra Hardwick, 48, initially had escaped the fire that lit up her Church Road duplex shortly after midnight on Christmas, and was huddled in the snow with her son, his girlfriend and her two grandsons.
But then Sandra Hardwick went back inside the blazing home.
"We were all out there, in the snow, and she just ran back into the house," said the son, Eric Campbell, 29. "I think she was trying to put it out. I never saw her again."
Cherry Hill Fire Chief Robert Giorgio said firefighters forced their way through the rear door and found Sandra Hardwick unconscious in the kitchen. She was transported to JFK Hospital in Cherry Hill, where she was pronounced dead due to burns and smoke inhalation.
Giorgio said Campbell and his girlfriend were wrapping presents for his sons, Amir, 2, and Sean, 7, when they smelled fire.
"The mother had gone to bed and they saw smoke coming from her bedroom," he said.
Giorgio said the cause of the fire is under investigation but it appears to be accidental and could have originated from a cigarette or lamp.
"It's really tragic," he said. "I never want to lose anyone to a fire, but this time of year makes it all that much worse."
Although unemployed, Sandra Hardwick made the most of Christmas, her mother said.
"It didn't matter whether she had to get it from the Goodwill or a dollar store, as long as she was wrapping presents for someone," Barbara Hardwick said. "She didn't mind that she didn't get anything, it was all about giving."
Sandra grew up in East Camden and attended Camden High School, her mother said, before moving to Cherry Hill with Eric, her only child. Neighbors along Church Road didn't know Hardwick that well, but always saw her walking her dog, Yum-Yum, around a lake in a nearby park.
"I was hoping the dog got out and was hiding somewhere," said neighbor Tatyana Belinsky.
Unfortunately, Yum-Yum didn't survive. The dog's charred body still sat inside a small crate on the front porch of the burned-out home yesterday morning.
Eric Campbell said he's not sure what, if anything, the fire spared. Christmas presents for his children - including a daughter who was staying elsewhere - were destroyed and the keys to his girlfriend's car, which was still parked on the ash-covered snow yesterday, probably melted in the home, he said.
"It's probably all gone," he said, standing inside his grandmother's apartment.
Barbara Hardwick said she'd like to believe the daughter whom she called Pee Wee had run back inside to salvage some presents and a semblance of the holiday.
"My daughter was a sweetheart," she said. "She would do anything for anyone. She was an early Christmas gift for me the day she was born, and she kept giving ever since."