Bodies of father, four children recovered in Pike County house fire

gkocher1@herald-leader.com vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comJanuary 9, 2013 

JONANCY — The bodies of a father and his four young children were found Wednesday in the living room of a house that burned overnight in Eastern Kentucky, the Pike County coroner said.

Based on conversations with relatives, Coroner Russell Roberts tentatively identified the five as Billy Wilfong and his children: Dakota, 5; Tyler, 4; Cheyenne, 2; and Emily, 6 months.

Roberts told the Herald-Leader that the bodies were being sent to the state medical examiner's office for positive identification.

The children's mother, Tammie Tucker, survived. Tucker, 29, was listed in serious condition at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital on Wednesday night, spokesman Carl Nathe said.

To the best of their recollection, investigators said it was the worst fire in Pike County and among the worst in the state.

The blaze destroyed the house on Elswick Branch Road in Jonancy, where the family had lived since at least 2008. A chimney rose from the rubble.

Roberts said the blaze caused more fatalities than any fire he could remember since 1985. He said all five victims were found together in the living room.

"The father and the four kids were in the same room. Evidently, they had been sleeping on pallets on the floor, probably in one room to stay warm," Roberts said. "It looks like the dad had the baby in his arms, trying to get out with it.

"Tragedies like this, it gets to where it does bother you. Any time you lose children in a house fire like this, it gets emotional."

Roberts said the fire began about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.

James Tucker, Tammie's father, told the Herald-Leader that everything was fine at the house when he was last there, about 6 or 7 p.m. Tuesday.

James Tucker, 54, said he went to his neighboring mobile home several hundred feet away and went to bed at 11 p.m. He woke to find Tammie beating on the window and shouting, "Help me, Daddy! Help me!"

"I looked out the window and saw the whole house lit up," James Tucker said.

His daughter was severely burned, and when she poured cold water over her hand "the skin just started rolling off her hand," he said.

James Tucker said he ran up the hill and tried to enter the blazing house for a rescue, "but there was no way I could get in there to help."

A relative who lives nearby told The Associated Press that she woke up to find the house engulfed in flames.

Glema Blair, the children's great-aunt, who lives behind the home, ran to the house but it was too hot to go inside.

"There was nothing I could do. I got second-degree burns just getting close to it," Blair said.

Jasmine Tucker, Tammie Tucker's sister, said she heard from relatives who were at the hospital with her sister Wednesday afternoon. They told her Tammie Tucker was "going to be OK."

"The smoke didn't get to her lungs," Jasmine Tucker said. She said Tammie Tucker suffered burns on her hands and face.

Investigators with Kentucky State Police and the state fire marshal's office combed through the charred remnants of the house Wednesday afternoon. Earlier Wednesday, Doug Tackett, Pike County emergency services coordinator, said hot spots remained throughout the house.

Investigators had not determined a cause, but the fire marshal's office was investigating the possibility that the fire began in a space heater, Roberts said. Tucker said the family used an electric heater to keep warm.

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.

Tackett said three fire departments responded to Wednesday's fire.

The death toll shook even hardened emergency-response veterans, including Darrell Compton, who has been chief of the Shelby Valley Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years.

"I've worked some fires before with fatalities, but this is the worst, simply because of the number and because kids are involved," Compton said. "It's heartbreaking."

Another neighbor, Evelyn Mullins, told the AP that the deadly fire shocked the small community of Jonancy, which is nestled in Kentucky's eastern coalfields.

County Judge-Executive spokesman Brandon Roberts told the AP that there had been no similar fatal fires in the 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."

Blair said Tucker lived in the house with Wilfong, the children's father. The two weren't married but had been together for about seven years, she said.

She said that 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.

Tyler loved to play with toy monster trucks, Jasmine Tucker said. And Dakota liked toy robots, she said.

Cheyenne "was a little tomboy," said Tucker. "She tried her best to do anything the boys would do."

Kim Weddington, a guidance counselor at Valley Elementary School where Dakota and Tyler attended classes, remembered the boys as "fun and outgoing, and they loved to be outside."

Weddington brought a wreath with four blue balloons — one for each child — to the scene Wednesday afternoon.

"It's the least we can do," she said. "Our hearts are with them."

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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