Keith Harris sustained injuries to his hand while trying to rescue his twin brother, a man with a disability, from a burning home in the south end of East St. Louis, an official said.
East St. Louis Fire Chief Jason Blackmon said Harris refused any medical treatment, Blackmon said.
Kenneth Harris, 56, was trapped inside of a home he shared with his twin brother and killed when fire engulfed the home in the 1800 block of Central on Wednesday night.
Never miss a local story.
Keith Harris, and a female caregiver were able to escape the burning home. The identity of the female has not been released.
A next door neighbor Craig Stacker said Keith Harris did everything he could to save his brother.
“He was confined to a wheelchair, but his brother took exceptional care of him. He even went back into that burning house to try to get him out. That house was engulfed in flames. He loved his brother as he should have. I commend him for what he tried to do,” Stacker said.
Keith Harris said he moved from his Belleville home five years ago to East St. Louis to provide the best care he could for his brother.
Keith Harris was back at the home Thursday afternoon looking at the devastation and taking out the things that he could salvage.
Keith Harris said his brother was a politician and loved politics and working in the community. Kenneth Harris had the Central Avenue home built 25 years ago and that was his home. It was where he wanted to be, his brother said.
So, rather than put him in a nursing home, Keith said he moved in with him to take care of him.
Keith Harris had a stroke a year ago in August. But, this did not stop him from caring for his brother, who suffered a stroke about seven or eight years ago, it was said. Nothing or no one could break the bond the brother’s shared, he said. As he fought his emotions to talk about his brother, he showed a reporter the gray tape that covered his injured left thumb.
He said he will miss waking up and not seeing his brother and not being able to talk to him. He said he will miss his joking around with him.
Keith’s girlfriend, Helen Barradge, said Kenneth liked to sit out on the patio and look at the big pool in the back yard. She said there is something special with twin brotherly love. Keith was always with Kenneth, to the point where it put a strain on their relationship sometimes, Barradge said.
“He knew he had him,” she said smiling.
If she was going out of town and wanted Keith to go, she knew he was not leaving unless he had someone to provide the same level of quality care he gave his brother,she said.
Barradge said she understood though and knew that was the way it would be if she wanted to be with Keith.
Keith Harris described his brother as a “person that everyone liked and wanted to be around. He tried to help everybody that he could.”
“All day long he would sit and joke with the housekeeper,” Keith said. “This is just a tragedy. I tried to save him, but the fire was getting too heavy.”
Keith said he escaped out the patio door and the housekeeper went out the front door.
“I told the Fire Department my brother is in there,” Keith said as he tried to save what belongings he could from the charred home on Thursday afternoon. “They (firefighters) tried to put out the fire before they went in to get him.”
Keith said the fire started in a mattress in his brother’s room. When he lifted up the mattress to roll it over, he said the fire started “roaring all over.”
He suffered burns to his left thumb from the mattress.
All day long he would sit and joke with the housekeeper. This is just a tragedy. I tried to save him, but the fire was getting too heavy.
East St. Louis resident Keith Harris talks about his twin brother Kenneth Harris
Stacker called the fire that claimed Kenneth’s life a tragedy.
Stacker has been a neighbor to the Harris family for 17 years. He said you couldn’t ask for better neighbors. He said the twin brothers shared a special bond. There was nothing Keith Harris wouldn’t do to make sure his twin brother was comfortable, Stacker said, including his latest effort of running back inside of the burning home in an attempt to pull his brother to safety. But Keith could not get him out.
Stacker said he didn’t hear anything that would have alerted him that a fire was happening next door. His brother was leaving his house and saw the house fully engulfed with flames.
“As my brother was leaving my home, he saw that a back room in the house was fully engulfed. He ran back and told us to get out of the house. We ran outside,” Stacker said.
Stacker said he was not able to communicate well, but the special love Keith had for his brother made Kenneth’s life as comfortable as it could be.
Stacker described Kenneth as “a very nice person. I will miss him. His brother Keith is also very nice. They are just great people and great neighbors,” Stacker said.
Deputy St. Clair County Coroner Curt Schildknecht said Kenneth Harris was pronounced dead at 9 p.m.
“The cause of his death as well as the cause of the fire are under investigation at this time,” Schildknecht said. “We’re also awaiting results of toxicology tests.”
Schildnecht said Kenneth Harris sometimes used a wheelchair, and it was being investigated whether his disabilities prevented him from escaping the flames.
Blackmon said a call reporting an “occupied structure with possible suspects trapped” came in to the department at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
When fire crews from Engine House 425 and another crew arrived three minutes later, they found fire shooting from windows in the front and back of the home. A crowd of people from the neighborhood gathered outside.
Blackmon did not know what caused the fire, but he said it started in Kenneth Harris’ bedroom. The Illinois State Fire Marshal and East St. Louis fire investigators were conducting an investigation. The home did have smoke detectors, Blackmon said.
Fire Engine House 425 is about one block from the home.
As firefighters battled the blaze, a woman arrived on scene crying profusely. She had to be restrained by some onlookers. It was not immediately clear if she was related to the victim. According to St. Clair County property records, the home is owned by Cassie M. and Keith R. Harris.
It took the two fire crews, which consisted of two fire trucks, six firefighters, a chief and two assistant fire chiefs, about an hour to extinguish the flames. The house appeared to be a total loss.
Tony Harris, an older brother, who use to cut Kenneth’s hair said his brother was a dedicated family man, a father, brother, uncle and community activist. Kenneth worked in Buildings and Grounds at East St. Louis District 189 until he suffered a stroked in 2008. He said his brother has six grown children, four daughters and two sons.
“He was 48 when he had a stroke and had to retire,” Tony Harris said.
Tony last saw his brother a week ago and like usual, he was in a good mood.
“He was always in a good mood. He was the life of the party. He loved to have a good time with family members and friends, and he could cook. Momma taught all of her boys how to cook,” Tony Harris said. “I use to cut his hair. There will be a void in our lives because he was always there for us when he was able to get around.”
Talking about the remaining twin’s love for his twin brother, Tony said, “He took it on himself to be his caregiver and guardian so he (Kenneth) could stay in familiar surroundings around family rather than in a nursing home,” Tony said.
Asked how the family will move forward in spite of all of the heavy hearts and emotions that now consume them, Tony said, “Our father was a minister. We understand God’s will. We are not going to lean on our own understanding. We know God is sovereign. We accept his will,” Tony said.
Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503
BND reporter Scott Wuerz contributed to this report.