MIDDLESBORO — A neighbor said he tried to help a frantic father get his two sons out of their burning house early Friday, but couldn't reach the brothers, who died.
The brothers were Ethan Barton, 12, and Aaron Barton, 6. Their parents, Travis Barton, 29, and Brandy Harris, 31, escaped with minor injuries, state police said.
Andy Vanover, who lives next door, said he smashed out the window to the room where the boys slept in bunk beds to try to get in, but thick smoke and searing heat came blazing out.
"I couldn't get in. It was overwhelming," said Vanover, 34. "It breaks my heart."
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The fire started sometime before 5:30 a.m., which is when Middlesboro firefighters received a call to respond.
The front of the house was engulfed when firefighters arrived, said fire Chief Tim Wilder.
Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus went in with hoses to battle the blaze and try to rescue the boys, but it was too late.
Ethan was still in bed. Aaron was in the hallway, perhaps an indication that he was trying to get out when he died.
State police, the state Fire Marshal's Office and the Middlesboro police and fire departments are investigating to try to determine how and where the fire started.
Fires sometimes occur during cold weather when families use supplemental heat — such as space heaters — that might have electrical problems, but investigators said Friday that it was too soon to say what might have caused the fire.
Bill Bisceglia, deputy coroner in Bell County, said autopsies are scheduled Saturday in Frankfort to determine what killed the boys. Fire victims often die as a result of smoke inhalation.
The deaths brought another sad day in a difficult year in Bell County. Since January 2008, 11 young people have died in high-profile tragedies, nine in car crashes and two in the fire.
"A lot of young lives gone," Wilder said as he looked at the charred remains of the family's small, wood-frame house.
Vanover said a noise woke him early Friday. When he looked out his bedroom window, he could see his neighbor's house on fire.
Vanover said he ran next door wearing no shoes and only a short-sleeved shirt in the numbing cold. Travis Barton was already outside the house.
"I asked him where his babies were. He said, 'They're still in the house,'" Vanover said. "He was in hysterics."
Vanover said he had to jump to reach the boys' window and knock out the glass. Barton was trying to help him.
But the heat, and the fact the window was too high, kept him from getting in, Vanover said.
Vanover said his father, A.C. Vanover, who is in his early 60s, helped Barton pull his wife out the window of another bedroom.
Harris said she was calling for her sons to follow the sound of her voice to escape the fire, and thought they were close behind her, Vanover said.
"Brandy was in pretty bad shape" emotionally, he said.
Both boys attended Yellow Creek elementary school, Ethan in the sixth grade and Aaron in the first grade. It's a close-knit school with about 520 students.
People who knew them said the two were smart, exemplary students.
"You couldn't ask for better boys," said Lea Fultz, a kindergarten teacher who taught both brothers.
Ethan was on the academic team and played basketball, said Patricia West, director of the school's family resource and youth-service center.
"I know that his class is having a really hard time," she said.
Ethan was cheerful, volunteered to help others in class and came to school even on days when he didn't feel good, holding his little brother's hand as they walked in, said Kaitlyn Mason and Taelor Lawson, two 11-year-olds who were at school Friday for cheerleading practice.
"He was a really good big brother," Taelor said, holding tight to Kaitlyn as they choked back tears.
Aaron was reading well above his grade level, Fultz said.
Friday afternoon, not quite 12 hours after the fire, teachers and staff members gathered in the library at the school to share tears and memories, passing around a box of tissues as some made ribbons for members of the academic team, basketball players and cheerleaders to wear at competitions in the coming days.
One read the lyrics of a song about hope, and they discussed collecting money to help the family and how to honor the boys, such as with a moment of silence during a basketball game Monday.
"We're devastated," said teacher Lisa Gambrel.