HOPE MILLS — An accomplished Special Forces soldier who had survived six combat deployments died along with his two young daughters early Tuesday when their house caught fire and he was overcome by smoke while trying to rescue them.
Chief Warrant Officer Edward Duane Cantrell, 36, and his wife, Louise, 37, were awakened by smoke sometime after 1:30 a.m. at their home on Pecan Lane in Hope Mills, according to Debbie Tanna, spokeswoman for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office.
When they realized the house was on fire, Louise Cantrell went out a second-floor window and ran to the closest neighbor, an Alzheimer's care facility, and banged on the door, screaming.
"She was covered in soot, and she was banging at the door saying, 'Help! Help!' " said Cindy Jacobs, administrator of the Alzheimer's Related Care center. One of Jacobs' staff members dialed 911, she said.
Meanwhile, Edward Cantrell was trying to get the couple's two girls, Isabella, 6, and Natalia, 4, out of the house.
Kevin Dove, assistant chief of the Cotton Volunteer Fire Department less than a mile from the Cantrells' home, said firefighters got the call just before 2 a.m. and arrived at the house a few minutes later to find it engulfed.
They broke through the front door, he said, "but we were unable to save anybody."
Firefighters found the bodies of Edward Cantrell and the children on the second floor. Fighting to reach kids
Tanna said Edward Cantrell had also jumped from a second-floor window and had wrapped himself in a blanket before going back in to the burning house. But Dove said it wasn't clear Cantrell had left the house before trying to get the children.
Units from at least nine other fire departments came to help, bringing tankers to supply water because there are no hydrants near the house.
Investigators have not determined what caused the fire; Dove said the investigation would be handled by the sheriff's office.
The two-story home is set on an expansive lot in an area not far from U.S. 301, about a half-hour drive from Fort Bragg, where Cantrell was based as a Green Beret and a part of the 3rd Special Forces Group.
Property records indicate a house was built on the site in 1920, but Jacobs - whose family bought the neighboring care center in the 1960s - said the original house burned. The property was sold and the house rebuilt in the 1970s, she said.
About 70 percent of the house was gutted by the fire, Dove said. The roof was nearly gone, and the brick exterior was blackened. There were children's play sets in the yard and an older-model Volkswagen Beetle that appeared to be under repair in the drive. Friends who declined to talk were at the house Tuesday to retrieve some of the Cantrell family's belongings.
Mother treated, released
Dove said Louise Cantrell had suffered smoke inhalation and was treated at a local hospital and released. The sheriff's office said the family dog also survived.
Cantrell was a highly decorated soldier.
A release posted on the U.S. Army Special Forces Command's Facebook page said Cantrell was born in Dyersburg, Tenn., and joined the Army in 1994 as a military police officer. He served in the infantry in Korea, and then with the 503rd Military Police Battalion at Fort Bragg, with which he deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina. He later served in Vicenza, Italy.
He graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course in 2004 and was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg as a communications and intelligence sergeant. He was later promoted to Chief Warrant Officer 2.
Cantrell was the assistant detachment commander for a unit in the 3rd Battalion known as an "A-Team," a cornerstone of the Special Forces, said Lt. Col. April Olsen, spokeswoman for Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg.
He had deployed once to Iraq and five times to Afghanistan, returning from his most recent trip there last August.
He had been awarded four Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. The Bronze Star denotes "heroic or meritorious achievement" during conflict; the Purple Heart indicates he had been injured in combat.
In addition to his wife, according to the release, Cantrell was survived by a son and his parents.
Jacobs, at the Alzheimer's care facility, said the Cantrells were friendly neighbors and waved or stopped to chat as they drove past on the way to or from their home.
Todd Yardis, principal of Baldwin Elementary School in Hope Mills, where Isabella was in kindergarten, said Edward Cantrell often brought his daughter to school, where she was known as "Bella."
Louise Cantrell sometimes volunteered in Bella's classroom and just last week checked in with the principal and the little girl's teacher to see if there was anything else she needed to do as a mom to ensure her daughter's success.
"Both parents," Yardis said, "were the kind you would want parents to be."
Girl 'just ready to learn'
Indeed, Yardis said, Bella was a good student, learning along with her class to recognize geometric shapes and, recently, writing her first sentences about herself and her family.
"She was just your prototypical 'I love school' 6-year-old," he said. "Just ready to learn everything she could."
Natalia, two years younger, was enrolled in a nearby church preschool, Yardis said.
Yardis said a relative of the couple came to the school to ask for anything that Bella had created that her mother might be able to hold close. The teacher took artwork Bella had made off the classroom wall to send her, Yardis said.
"They were great parents who you could tell loved their children," Yardis said. "It's just a tragedy."