Four children lost their parents and their youngest sibling — a two-year-old girl — in a fatal mobile-home fire just west of Plumas, Man., Friday afternoon.
The surviving children had been at school when the fire started at around 3 p.m.
"The trailer lit up like a matchbox," said Gordon Coutts, the community's fire chief. Coutts said that by the time the fire department arrived at about 3:10 p.m., the entire east end of the trailer was on fire.
The bodies of a 36-year-old man, a 28-year-old woman and the two-year-old girl were located inside the home once the fire was extinguished. The Office of the Fire Commissioner is investigating the cause and autopsies have been scheduled, RCMP said.
Though authorities have yet to release the names of the victims, family members told the Free Press the adults were Bobbyjoe Lindsay and Jennifer McLeod, a couple who'd lived on an acreage near Plumas for several years. Lindsay was originally from Rivers, Man., family members say, and McLeod from the Minnedosa-Bethany area.
"I've been feeling really sick about it," said Jessica McLennan-Hopkins, McLeod's cousin. "It's taking a toll on us right now."
"As far as we know, they've lost everything," Marsha Rainville-Lindsay, who is married to one of Lindsay's brothers, said of the four older children.
McLennan-Hopkins said the couple had five children, ranging from two years old to 12. Other than the two-year-old, the rest of the children had been at school, which is in the Pine Creek School Division. Robert Cyrenne of the RCMP could not confirm personal information about the victims or the surviving children, but said he believed Child and Family Services were contacted for support while next steps are being determined.
Donna Miller Fry, superintendent of the Pine Creek School Division, said staff found out about the fire informally, and stayed with the children as information was being gathered and as the situation was being controlled by fire crews. On Saturday, she said social workers, psychologists and student services were assembled to determine how the division would move forward. Officials from the division will contact every family in the school community to support them as they talk to their kids about what happened, she said.
"We will be responding with a way to help in consultation with the family Tuesday," she added.
The family is still reeling, but will hopefully start collecting clothing and other necessities for the children in the coming days, said Rainville-Lindsay, who lives in Flin Flon.
The community of Plumas is a small one, with a population estimated at about 270, in the Rural Municipality of WestLake Gladstone. On Sunday, as news about the fire spread throughout town, residents were shaken, even ones who hardly knew the couple or their children.
Pastor James Vosper of Zion Lutheran Church said his service Sunday was an emotional one for himself and his parishioners. "We certainly brought the family to the alter of the Lord today with our prayers, asking our Eternal Lord to comfort the family during this time of tragedy," he said.
"It's very, very tragic, and our hearts go out to the children and the community members who are suffering," Vosper added.
Robert McLaughlin didn't meet the parents or the kids until Halloween, he said.
"I knew very little of them," he said.
But almost two weeks ago, McLaughlin, 70, greeted Lindsay and his kids on his doorstep when they arrived to trick or treat. McLaughlin spoke to Lindsay briefly, and he told him where he lived and a little about the family. They were all very happy that night, he said.
McLaughlin has trick-or-treaters sign a book on Halloween, and each of the older children took turns writing their autographs.
A neighbour told McLaughlin the family came to his house shortly after, and the two-year-old had a massive grin on her face. "He said he'd never forget her, smiling and waving as they walked away," he said.
"You just grieve for these children, grieve for their family," McLaughlin said. "There's nothing worse than when tragedy affects children."
The RCMP's Spruce Plains detachment is still investigating the fire, the cause of which has yet to be determined. The Office of the Fire Commissioner is assisting with the investigation, and a spokesperson said no further information will be released until autopsies have been conducted.
In such a small town, a fire like Friday's will be remembered forever, as will the victims, McLaughlin said. "It's not ever going to be forgotten."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.