CHERRY HILL - It was just after midnight today, the presents wrapped, Sandra Hardwick's two grandsons at her home to spend Christmas, when the fire broke out in the back bedroom where the 48-year-old woman slept.
Cherry Hill police said it was caused by either a burning candle, an overloaded extension cord or a malfunctioning lamp, all of which they said were present in the Church Road home. The fire remains under investigation.
Hardwick's son, Eric Campbell, his two sons, Sean, 7, and Amir, 2, and his girlfriend were assisted out of the house by firefighters and were not injured. But Hardwick, trapped in the back, suffered fatal burns across most of her body, police said.
She was prounounced dead at JFK Hospital in Cherry Hill a short time after police received a frantic cell phone call at 12:22 a.m., saying the house was on fire and one person was trapped inside.
Relatives were left to piece together what had happened so quickly to their loved one.
"They were over there wrapping gifts and stuff, it was Christmas Eve," said Barbara Hardwick, the victim's mother, who rushed to the burning house. She was unable to get to it because the street was blocked by fire trucks.
A police officer told her to go to the hospital and that her daughter was critical. But when she arrived, she said, her daughter had already died. "I just sort of lost it," she said this morning. "I just sat there with her. I felt better with her. I didn't want to leave her."
Cicero Simmons, a friend of the mother, said they had spoken with the victim about 45 minutes before the fire broke out. One the gifts that had just been wrapped by the great-grandchildren had been sent over to Barbara Hardwick about an hour before.
Simmons drove his car by the house this morning, stopping to stare sadly at the back portion of the white house with green trim, charred black by the fire, with windows boarded up, a child's skate on the porch next to a burned sofa.
Simmons said the family gathered at the hospital over night and was "taking it hard." They were staying with other relatives today.
"She was a loving grandmother," he said, of Hardwick. "She took care of her grandchildren."