Alfred Teah risked his life years ago to get his children out of their war-torn homeland of Liberia, only to see three of them die in a fire while they were visiting their mother in Southwest Philadelphia on Friday night.
"They were only there for a day visit, and they never came back," Teah said yesterday at Temple University Hospital, outside the room of his wife, Christiana, who was injured in the blaze at her home.
Christmas is not supposed to lead to grief and grimaces, to sad recollections of life's landmarks on the way to a fate no one could have imagined. Yet this is the holiday season the Teahs must endure after a fire killed seven people, most of whom were their kin.
Gone are their children, Vivian, 26, Elliott, 23, and Jennifer, 17, and a young grandchild, all trapped inside the fast-moving basement blaze.
Samuel, 21, was working and not at the house where fire broke out. But he was at the hospital yesterday to keep watch over his mother even as he was dealing with the loss of his siblings and other relatives.
"This is the hardest tragedy of my life," said Alfred Teah.
"As God would have it, I never lost family in Liberia. I never lost anyone," he said, even though a civil war in his homeland aimed its viciousness directly at civilians.
Alfred Teah remembers guiding his family into the safety of a refugee camp in the early 1990s.
"I was almost executed by the rebels when I was taking them out of the country," he said. "It was dark and curfew time. I got arrested by some of the rebels."
They put him on a pickup truck and drove him away, leaving Teah's family on the road. Some distance away, the rebels threw him out of the truck where they planned to execute him.
It turned out a rebel who had been living at Teah's next-door neighbor's residence was nearby. He was able to get Teah's life spared and the family continued on to the camp.
A year later, he returned to his job at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. He came to the United States in 1993 and brought the rest of his family over in 1997.
He watched them grow. He became a grandfather. All his children but Vivian lived with him. His wife lived separately.
On Friday, Christiana Teah invited her children for a visit.
Alfred Teah said he was at his job Friday night driving a shuttle at Philadelphia International Airport.
Yesterday morning, he received a call from his son Samuel, who had learned of the tragedy on television news.
Samuel had tried calling his mother and one of his sisters on their cell phones.
"No one had answered," Alfred said.
Vivian, the eldest child, was a security guard in Washington, her father said. She had come to his house from her home in Maryland on Christmas Eve.
"She's a friendly person so much," Teah said. "She busts into laughing about anything."
Elliott, who, along with Samuel, worked at a Home Depot, "was the quiet, easy one among all the children," Teah said.
Jennifer had been treated for behavioral problems, Teah said.
Alfred Teah says he does not regret bringing his children to the United States, though he does recognize a sad irony. He took them away from Liberia to keep them alive.
"Destiny is something nobody understands," he said.