- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

HOPE MILLS, N.C. — A decorated Green Beret who returned from his fifth deployment to Afghanistan last summer died Tuesday trying to rescue his two young daughters from their burning home near Fort Bragg. The girls were also killed in the blaze.

Edward Cantrell and his wife escaped from the 1 a.m. blaze by jumping from the home’s second floor, the Cumberland County sheriff’s office said. Mr. Cantrell then wrapped himself in a blanket and re-entered the burning home in Hope Mills, about 10 miles from the Army base that is home to the Green Berets and other Special Forces units, sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Tanna said.

Mr. Cantrell, 36, was trying to reach 6-year-old Isabella and 4-year-old Natalia, who were trapped in second-floor bedrooms, Ms. Tanna said.

“He never made it back out,” Ms. Tanna said. Firefighters found their bodies inside the home.

Ms. Tanna said the timbers in the old home, which was built in 1920, were likely very dry, causing a fast-moving blaze. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

A sign at the end of the driveway blocked with yellow police tape says “The Cantrells Est. Feb. 7, 2004.” Bouquets of flowers and two teddy bears had been placed nearby.

Firefighters from Cotton Volunteer Fire Department, which is less than two miles away, were on the scene within four minutes of receiving the dispatch call. Assistant Chief Kevin Dove said the house was already engulfed in flames.

“They perished before our arrival,” said Assistant Chief Dove, a veteran firefighter. “It was horrible.”

The three bodies were all recovered on the second floor, he said. It did not appear the father was able to reach the girls.

Mrs. Cantrell was treated and released from a Fayetteville hospital for smoke inhalation, Assistant Chief Dove said. The family dog, a Rottweiler named Sasha, also survived the fire and was being kept by neighbors.

Mr. Cantrell was a member of the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg. He held the rank of chief warrant officer 2, which authorized Mr. Cantrell to lead half of his 12-member Green Beret team if it was split up, said Lt. Col. April Olsen, a spokeswoman for Army Special Forces Command.

He joined the Army in 1994 and had one combat deployment to Iraq and five to Afghanistan, returning from the last mission in August, Lt. Col. Olsen said. His record included four Bronze Stars and one Purple Heart. Details of the acts that earned the medals were not immediately available, she said.

“There are no words to express the sorrow felt in our close-knit community when a family suffers such a tragedy,” the command said on its Facebook page.

Isabella attended nearby Ed V. Baldwin Elementary School. Principal Todd Yardis said the girl’s teacher and a grief counselor broke the news of what happened to her classmates shortly after they arrived in the morning.

Mr. Yardis said both Cantrell parents had been very active at the school, with Mr. Cantrell sometimes stopping by in his Army uniform. He recounted how excited the young girl was when her father returned home from his most recent tour of duty.

“Bella was a very happy, loving girl,” Mr. Yardis said. “She was one of those students who would run up and hug you around the leg when you passed her class in the hall.”

Cindy Jacobs, who works at an assisted living home next door, said Mrs. Cantrell ran to the facility during the fire to get the staff to call 911. Ms. Jacobs said she knew the family, especially the mother, who would often stop to make small talk as she drove by. The two girls were often in the car or outside playing.

“She was with those girls all the time,” said Ms. Jacobs, the executive director of the ARC of Hope Mills. “It’s so sad. I can’t imagine what she’s going through.”