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Cape Town -
In a desperate attempt to save her sons, a mother crouched next to the bed, shielding them with her body from a fire that engulfed their home.
But her efforts were in vain.
The bodies of Portia Julies, 36, and her sons, Naeem Solomons, 10, and Ryan Julies, 6, were found by neighbours and firefighters in the embers of a fire that raged through three wendy houses in Bonteheuwel early on Sunday.
Annamarie Gabriels, 61, said she was still trying to understand what had happened to her daughter and her two grandchildren.
“She decided to move back home with the kids three weeks ago. I was just getting used to having them around the house again.”
Gabriels said her daughter came home at about 9pm on Saturday with treats – chips and sweets – for the boys before taking them to the wendy house in the backyard to go to bed.
“I also went to bed, only to be woken up by the sound of people outside trying to put out the fire.”
Neighbour Grant Aries arrived at the house shortly before 3am and saw the flames.
“Some of the neighbours said they heard the children screaming, ‘Mommy, Mommy, the house is on fire,’ but by the time I got there, it was quiet and the fire was too big for us to try and go inside – the wind was also blowing hard.”
Aries said they used hosepipes and buckets to try to douse the fire before the firefighters arrived.
“When the fire was out, we found her (Portia) lying over her kids in the corner. I think she was trying to protect them.”
Remnants of the children’s clothes were still visible, including a striped red and blue T-shirt and brown pants.
Gabriels said her daughter, who was unemployed, had no electricity in the wendy house.
The fire spread to a neighbour’s wendy house and a small shed where the family’s dogs used to live. The smallest dog, Milo, also died in the fire.
Gabriels said: “It’s a tragic thing… I don’t know how I will be able to sleep.”
Wilfred Solomons-Johannes, spokesman for Cape Town’s disaster risk management centre, said the cause of the fire was still being determined.
Police had opened an inquest docket into the blaze and the city would help with trauma counselling and funeral arrangements.
Solomons-Johannes said the Bonteheuwel fire was the only one that led to deaths, but there had been several fires over the weekend and 28 people across the Cape Flats had lost their homes.
The city’s disaster management centre revealed in its 2012/13 annual report last month that it had reduced the number of fire-related deaths from 7.9 per 100 000 people to four per 100 000.