JONANCY, Ky. (AP) — Relatives gathered around a still-smoldering home Wednesday to remember four children and their father who died in an early-morning blaze in rural eastern Kentucky. While dealing with the incomprehensible loss, the mourners vowed to support the mother, who survived with serious burns.
A relative who lives nearby said she woke up early Wednesday to find the house engulfed.
"There was nothing I could do, I got second-degree burns just getting close to it," said Glema Blair, the children's great-aunt.
The five bodies were found in the small home's living room, where the family had been sleeping near an electric space heater, said Pike County Coroner Russell Roberts.
The fire in southern Pike County began about 2:30 a.m., state police Trooper Tony Watts said.
By afternoon, a makeshift memorial had sprung up at the single-story frame home, located on a narrow, serpentine road that leads up the Appalachian hillside. Red flowers and four blue balloons decorated the memorial and included a collage with pictures of the father and four children, topped by a plastic gold angel.
Near the charred remnants of the home were a swing set and a tricycle.
The children and their mother, Tammie Tucker, were inseparable, said Vicki Elkins, mother-in-law to one of Tammie's sisters.
"It's going to take all her family pulling together," Elkins said as she wondered how Tucker would endure such a heavy loss.
Just after it started, Blair, who lives behind the home, ran to the fire and saw Tammie Tucker, and Tucker's father, James Tucker, attempting to get inside. Tammie Tucker was taken to UK Medical Center with severe burns, Blair said.
"She was trying her best," said Blair, who was fighting back tears in an interview with The Associated Press.
Hospital spokeswoman Julie Phillips said Tucker was in critical condition Wednesday afternoon.
James Tucker said he was awakened by his daughter beating on the window of his home, screaming "Help, Daddy, help!"
"When I opened up the curtain and looked out the window, the whole house was up in flames," James Tucker said. His daughter yelled through the window, "I need help getting the babies out of the house."
Tucker rushed to the house but "there wasn't no way I could get into it."
The family had switched from burning wood to an electric heater and it was the only heat source in the living room where the family slept, James Tucker said.
Blair said Tucker lived in the home with the children's father, Billy Wilfong. The two weren't married but had been together for about seven years, she said.
Blair identified the children as 5-year-old Dakota Lee; 4-year-old Tyler Lane; 2-year-old Cheyenne and Emily, who was 6 months old. She said she watched the kids often and that they loved to play outside and watch TV together.
"They were good kids, you couldn't ask for no better," Blair said.
Dakota liked robots and cartoons; Tyler was a monster truck fan and Cheyenne enjoyed playing with Barbie dolls.
They were close-knit playmates, relatives said.
"That might be why the Lord took all four of them at the same time," Elkins said.
Roberts said the bodies would be taken to the medical examiner's office in Frankfort, and it could take several days for positive identifications. The infant was found within a foot of the father, and all the victims were within about two feet of each other.
"They could've been overcome by that smoke and just went into like a deep sleep," Roberts said. "They just couldn't make it out."
Fire investigators said the blaze was accidental and broke out in the living room where the space heater was found. A cause had not been determined.
No officials could recall a similar deadly blaze in Kentucky since 10 people, including six children, were killed in a house fire in Bardstown in February 2007.
County Judge-Executive spokesman Brandon Roberts said there's been no similar fatal fire in Pike County in recent years.
"I can't remember a whole family perishing in a fire in my lifetime," Roberts said. "It's just, 'Oh God.'"
Associated Press writers Dylan Lovan and Brett Barrouquere contributed to this report from Louisville.