Alice Babson was growing up to become like her father – both caring souls quick to offer sincere smiles and helping hands.
The 8-year-old and her father, Thomas Babson, a doctor and reserve Pierce County sheriff’s deputy, were killed late Wednesday after a fire consumed their waterfront house on Fox Island and trapped them inside.
“We lost a true hero,” said neighbor Glen Garnett.
Babson’s wife, June, managed to save their 12-year-old daughter, Katie. A neighbor who saw the flames raced across the street in his pajamas and scooped up 8-year-old Tobey, Alice’s twin, and carried him to safety.
Thomas Babson, who would have been 63 next week, and his younger daughter never made it out.
Firefighters found the girl’s body, but the search for Thomas Babson was suspended until Friday morning because of darkness and the home’s instability.
Crews would maintain a presence at the site overnight, Gig Harbor Fire Division Chief Eric Waters said.
Three investigators were working to determine what started the fire.
The two-alarm blaze in the 400 block of Sixth Avenue NW was reported shortly after 11 p.m. Firefighters said they could see flames as they crossed the bridge leading to the island.
Alerted to the fire, a neighbor, who declined to be identified, rushed into the burning house to rescue Tobey.
Witnesses said that after saving her older daughter, June Babson ran into the street and repeatedly screamed, “Oh, my God!” as the family’s home burned.
Garnett, who lives across the street, said he heard the cries and looked outside to see the Babsons’ home engulfed in flames.
He busted through two gates to try and help, but the smoke pushed him back.
“I wanted to go inside but I knew it was too dangerous,” he said. “When I found out there was a doctor and a little girl inside, it broke my heart.”
Firefighters were able to make it only eight feet past the front door to try and rescue Thomas Babson and Alice before they were forced to retreat.
“It was a jet of fire inside so we had to back out,” Gig Harbor Fire Division Chief Eric Waters said.
After June Babson escaped the fire a neighbor lent her slippers to protect her bare feet on the icy asphalt. Her son was covered in soot and moaning.
Fire crews immediately took the surviving family members to a nearby hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Firefighters needed several hours to put out the blaze, which sent pillars of white smoke billowing into the air throughout the morning. The smell of smoke permeated the small town and nearby Gig Harbor.
The three-story, 6,800-square-foot house was a complete loss.
It was about noon before rescuers were able to start looking for the bodies. The first obstacle they faced was ice that froze in the rubble, forcing officials to bring in multiple de-icers to melt it.
Firefighters searched the area where the four-car garage once stood before bringing in a technical-rescue team to shore up walls on the northern end of the home.
An excavator simultaneously began removing fallen beams and sections of walls from the south.
“This was a very, very intense fire,” Waters said. “The building has such extensive damage to it we actually have to shore it up for safety reasons.”
Thomas Babson’s day job was an emergency room doctor for Team Health, working four 12-hour shifts a week at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma and St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor.
Co-workers remembered him as a happy man who never let patients frustrate him. He was known for his sense of humor and constantly smiling face.
“He was a real breath of fresh air,” said former state Sen. Nathan Schlicher, who worked at Team Health with Babson. “He really cared about his patients and the people he worked for and could always find the good in situations.”
Dr. Matt Rice helped train Babson in emergency medicine at Madigan Army Medical Center more than 20 years ago and the two remained friends afterward.
He described Babson, who served in the Air Force before becoming a physician, as a man motivated by patriotism and an innate desire to do the right thing.
That included traveling to smaller hospitals around the state to work in their emergency rooms, Rice said. The trips put stress on Babson and his family, but he felt compelled to help people, his friend added.
“He just seemed to care,” Rice said.
That sense of caring also prompted Babson to volunteer his time as a reserve sheriff’s deputy, his friend said.
Babson was attached to a lab team that responded to suspected methamphetamine houses and occasionally assisted a SWAT team.
“You can’t find a better guy,” deputy Dan Wulick said. “He was willing to do anything at any time for anybody. This is a huge loss.”
Babson chose to work on the meth lab team not only to help his fellow deputies should they become sick but also because he felt like he was helping society by working to eliminate the scourge of drugs, Rice said.
“He was a very service-oriented person, and he was very proud to be a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy,” Rice said.
Dave Holsinger, who had known Babson for 13 years, described his friend and former neighbor as a “special guy” who loved being on the water. Babson was a member at the Fox Island Yacht Club.
“Tom was an exemplary guy,” Holsinger said. “He was committed to our community in so many ways.”
Alice Babson, known as Ali, took after her dad.
Neighbors said she liked to help out and was known to help pick apples or play with the younger children to give their moms a break.
She loved animals and frequently visited Jeannette Coil’s home to play with her therapy dog, Gerardo.
“She was one of these very outgoing, friendly kids,” Coil said. “Shy was not her word.”
Ali Babson was a third-grader at Saint Nicholas Catholic School in Gig Harbor.
“She was amazingly kind, and sweet-hearted,” Principal Michele Corey said.
Katie Babson is a seventh grade student at Saint Nicholas. Tobey attended a different school, Corey said.
Saint Nicholas, with fewer than 200 students, is the kind of place where students and teachers all know each other.
“It’s been hard for everybody,” Corey said. “We are a very close-knit community - the school and the parish.”
Two grief counselors from Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma came to Saint Nicholas on Thursday to help Ali’s classmates cope with her death.
Ali attended Sunday school at nearby United Church of Christ. Thursday night, the church stayed open late for anyone who wanted to light a candle for the family or who just needed a place to go to deal with the loss.
“It’s a sad day for the family,” said Garnett, the Babsons’ neighbor, “and a sad day for the neighborhood,”
Staff writers Adam Lynn and Debbie Cafazzo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653