Four children under the age of 11 have died after being trapped inside a two-storey house that went up in flames in the northern Manitoba city of Thompson on Wednesday night, police say.
A 41-year-old woman who escaped the fire told police she was in the basement with a 62-year-old man when they heard the sound of a fire upstairs, an RCMP news release said.
They made it to the main floor but were forced out by smoke and flames.
Her five children, age four to 13, were upstairs. The eldest climbed out a window and jumped to escape, but the other four children didn’t get out.
Shirley Robinson, a band councillor in Pimicikamak Cree Nation and a cousin of the children’s mother, is acting as a family spokesperson. She confirmed Thursday that the children were Helen Joy Keeper, 10, Leon Keeper Jr., 9, Big Bear Keeper, 7, and Rowan Thomas, 4.
“It’s so, so difficult right now. I pray we get through this together,” Robinson said, adding that it was Big Bear’s birthday on Thursday. He would have been eight years old.
Police responding to a nearby unrelated incident around 8:40 p.m. were the first emergency personnel at the fire after they heard a woman screaming from down the street and saw a significant amount of smoke, RCMP Sgt. Paul Manaigre said.
The house was fully engulfed in flames when fire crews arrived.
Once the fire was under control, firefighters entered the house and found the other four children.
They were taken to the hospital, where they died from injuries sustained in the fire, police said.
The three survivors were taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Police and the office of the fire commissioner have not determined the cause of the fire and continue to investigate.
Robinson said she can’t help but think about the potential all four children had.
“They would welcome you with a hug and a kiss when you saw them. They were really outgoing and I know they would have been here to help make a difference in our society,” she said.
The family had ties to Pimicikamak and Tataskweyak Cree Nations, Robinson said, so many people across northern Manitoba are impacted by the news.
“I’m asking people to pray for the families and all of us that are affected. This hits the core of our heart and it’s going to take time for everyone to grieve, to heal from this tragedy.”
Neighbours, politicians offer condolences
The fire broke out shortly after neighbour Oceana Lahaie got home from grocery shopping Wednesday evening, she told CBC on Thursday.
She doesn’t know the family personally, but said their loss is “absolutely heartbreaking.”
“It’s hard to take in. My well-wishes for the parents, and the daughter who did survive,” she said.
At the legislature, Thompson MLA Eric Redhead fought back tears during his member’s statement Thursday afternoon as he acknowledged the tragedy and asked members of Manitoba’s legislature to keep the family and community in their thoughts.
Then, members of the legislative assembly observed a moment of silence.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 26 northern First Nations, also expressed condolences and said their mobile crisis response team will be supporting the community.
They said in a news release that they’ve reached out to the school where the children were students to show support for those “grappling with such devastating news about their peers.”
Manaigre said that at this time, nothing criminal is suspected.
“It’s tragic for any community. Hopefully everyone is going to come together and help this family grieve and recover from such a tragic loss,” he said.
An online fundraiser has been set up for the family, and a vigil is planned for Saturday evening.