SULPHUR — Shaken and dazed, the large gathering joined hands to brace for the horrific news they had dreaded — a fire that swept through a relative's mobile home early Thursday had killed two children and three adults in southern Indiana.
It took firefighters about two hours to extinguish the blaze that gutted the home near Sulphur, about 30 miles west of Louisville, Ky. Authorities suspected the fire was sparked by a wood stove that served as the source of heat.
A teary-eyed Crawford County Sheriff Tim Wilkerson gathered the family to inform them the death toll was five. He brought along local fire and rescue chaplain Hank Ruff, still in his muddy, sooty firefighting gear he wore to help extinguish the overnight blaze.
"There were cries and breakdowns," Wilkerson said. "It's like a wall falls on you. It felt like that to me."
At the sheriff's request, Ruff led the group in a middle-of-the-night prayer. It was a simple prayer that "asked the Lord to strengthen us in our time of need," he said.
Although they had an electric furnace, the occupants had been using a wood stove to heat the home, Wilkerson said.
The homeowner's father, who lives nearby, spotted the flames about 12:30 a.m. He rushed to the burning home but got a gash on his hand as a rescue attempt was driven back by intense flames, Wilkerson said.
"There was just no way he could get in there. It was fully engulfed by that time," the sheriff said.
The mobile home's owner, John Denton, 32, died in the fire along with his 8-year-old daughter Kara Denton, and Denton's half-brother, Bill Turben, 35, relatives said. John Denton's girlfriend and her 3-year-old son also died in the blaze.
The family was told of the deaths in the father's mobile home, a short walk from the burned-out trailer.
"The sheriff asked them to gather around the kitchen table, which is kind of customary for that type of news," Ruff said.
"I advised them not to take any blame for any of it, because there was nothing that any one of them could have done to change the situation," he added. "It was already done before anyone even knew that the trailer was on fire."
Autopsies were being performed in Louisville, authorities said.
Kara mostly lived with her mother, but she spent Wednesdays and every other weekend with her father, Denton's relatives said.
It was the first Wednesday in some time that she had stayed with her father, said Ricky Young, the fiance of Kara's mother. Young and Kara's mother, Rebecca Richardson, learned of Kara's death shortly before 5:30 a.m., when a sheriff's deputy knocked on their door in Marengo, about 15 miles from the fire scene.
Wilkerson said the victims were found throughout the home, but he couldn't determine yet if any of them had tried to get out. The State Fire Marshal's office joined in the investigation and they were trying to determine if the home had a smoke detector, he said.
Hours after the fire, Bill Turben's sister and other relatives stood near the charred home, which is a few miles from Sulphur, a village of about a dozen homes surrounded by rolling hills, tracts of fields and dense woods. A child's scooter and a small basketball goal were near the gutted home.
Rose Turben said Denton, her half-brother, rarely used his electric furnace because it was expensive to run.
"It's all a matter of saving money," she said sadly.
Turben's voice cracked as she described her niece Kara, a second-grader at Marengo Elementary School who loved to draw and color.
"If you were ever sad, all you had to do was look at that child's face. She would turn your world completely around," she said.
Young called the young honor student "an angel."
"She loved her mommy," he said. "She loved me. She loved Jesus."
Denton, who worked unloading trucks at a warehouse, had put up wall paneling the day before the blaze, Turben said.
Denton and his girlfriend met through work, but she was on medical leave after breaking an ankle, she said.
She said the couple been talking about moving in together and "seemed to be a match made in heaven.
"They finally met their other half and they haven't been together very long and now they'll be together forever."