AMHERST, N.S. - What was to have been a Nova Scotia family's final wilderness outing of the summer to celebrate the third birthday of the youngest child ended in tragedy on the weekend when a fire in their travel trailer killed all six members.
On Tuesday in the centre of Amherst, N.S., where a memorial was set up to remember the local family, loved ones gathered to grieve and residents came by to pay their respects.
"I always think of them as the family that could," said Nellie Lloy, an aunt of 28-year-old Michelle Robertson, who died in the fire. "They were at the most beautiful time of their life."
Her niece's partner, Robert Jorge (R.J.) Sears, 30, also died in the fire. His father, Robert Tony Sears, has identified the four children who died as Madison, 11; Robert Ryder, 8; Jaxson, 4; and Colin J. (C.J.), 3.
Lloy said the family had left Saturday for their trailer in Millvale, N.S., a rural community about 45 kilometres southwest of Amherst, and planned a party for C.J.'s birthday. On Sunday at around 6:30 p.m., RCMP were called to the site and discovered the six bodies inside the Passport Ultra Lite trailer.
The medical examiner's office is looking into the cause and time of death, and the fire marshal is investigating what started the blaze. The Mounties say they are not treating the incident as suspicious.
Lloy said Robertson and Sears had known each other since they were children, and this summer they had cleared property Lloy owned in Millvale to create a getaway. "We all had a place to go for the kids to run free and pick blueberries and visit their uncle's farm and build forts," she told reporters.
She said the couple were dedicated parents and "the children brought joy everywhere they went." She added that they leave a large extended family. "We certainly have so many friends and family reaching out from the West Coast to the East Coast," Lloy said.
The memorial for the family was set up in Amherst's Victoria Square, where a large photo of them was surrounded by flowers and gifts left by family and community members.
Amherst Mayor David Kogon said in an interview Tuesday the town has come together for the family in an outpouring of support.
"To lose six members of the community, a young couple with four young children, is such a tragedy," said Kogon. "Every single person from Amherst is feeling the loss."
A family friend described them as a boisterous clan. Colin Smith, 44, said their bustling household included a cat, a dog and a bearded lizard. He has strong memories of all four children playing on the swings, leaping onto trees and bouncing on a trampoline in the yard as Robertson kept an eye on them.
Smith said Sears worked hard as a labourer for Gordon Food Service in Amherst, and in his spare time his focus was his children and his friends.
"I met him years ago when my little girl was in daycare. I met him and we started talking and we have been inseparable since, and he's the kind of guy if you ever got in a jam, he'd drop everything and come and help you," he said.
As the children grew older, they played with his four children, and the sounds of their banter and shouts as they raced about were part of his daily life. "It was a busy household, with four kids. Little orangutans, all of them," he said.
Smith said many children in Amherst will be affected by the deaths, particularly at the local school that three of the four children attended. He said he has been struggling to explain the tragedy to his own children and is awaiting further information on what occurred.
He recalled that a Facebook message from R.J.'s father informing him of the deaths left him unsteady on his feet.
"I just sat on the couch, staring at the wall .... Then I went over and talked to him (the father). It was hard to have a conversation. I just gave him a hug."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.
— With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Robert Jorge (R.J.) Sears was 33.