Four children die in Stafford house fire

Image source, POLICE HANDOUT
Image caption,
Keegan, Tilly Rose, Olly and Riley, seen here in a photo taken from social media, died in the blaze in the early hours of Tuesday

Four children have died in a house fire which also left a toddler and two adults - who leapt to safety from a first-floor window - injured

Neighbours reported hearing screams as the blaze, in the Highfields area of Stafford, took hold overnight.

The children killed in the fire were aged between three and eight, Staffordshire Police said.

Both adults, along with the toddler, are in hospital, but their injuries are not life-threatening.

The force named the four children, who have not been formally identified, as Riley Holt, eight, Keegan Unitt, six, Tilly Rose Unitt, four, and Olly Unitt, three.

Their two-year-old brother Jack survived, along with mother Natalie Unitt, 24 and her partner Chris Moulton, 28.

Part of the roof collapsed, windows were shattered and rooms left blackened by the blaze after the fire broke out on Sycamore Lane at about 02:40 GMT.

Neighbour Wendy Pickering said she heard "screaming" in the middle of the night, while her husband Bryan said he was alerted to the fire by his dog barking during the night.

Media caption,
Neighbour's tears for children killed in Stafford fire

Firefighters confirmed that a man, woman and young child had escaped from a first-floor window before emergency services arrives.

The cause of the blaze is not yet known.

Flowers and soft toys have been left at the scene, while tributes have been paid to the four children who died by those who knew them

Nicola Glover, head teacher of Castlechurch Primary School, which Riley, Tilly and Olly attended, said the school was "absolutely devastated".

She described Riley as a "confident, excitable" and articulate boy "who was always keen to ask lots of questions.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
A handwritten note attached to flowers was left at the scene from the children's grandparents

Tilly, meanwhile "was a happy little girl who loved coming to nursery" and was "a friendly and caring child who loved to read stories, dress up and paint", Ms Glover said.

She said Olly was "a happy, loving boy who loved cuddles. He was always happy to come to nursery and loved to be in the role play area with the dolls".

Kim Ellis, head teacher at Marshlands School, where Keegan was a pupil, said he was "full of fun and mischief".

"He loved school and everyone who worked with him loved him. It is very hard to accept what has happened."

Image source, PA
Image caption,
The fire ripped through the house destroying parts of the roof

Ch Insp John Owen, of Staffordshire Police, described the blaze as "absolutely heartbreaking".

"Our firefighters were faced with very difficult conditions inside the property due to the severity of the fire," he said.

Nathan Hudson, assistant chief officer of West Midlands Ambulance, added: "This was an immensely difficult incident for all three (emergency) services to respond to.

"Our thoughts remain with the family and friends and four children at this time."

Media caption,
Stafford house fire: Fire service to support community

Matthew Ellis, Staffordshire Commissioner for Police Fire and Crime, paid tribute to emergency services for working in "tragic and difficult circumstances in the middle of the night".

"For something like this to happen it's just heartbreaking," he said.

"It's very difficult to imagine just how professional and how dedicated these people are, but they are all human beings."

County councillor for Stafford West, Carolyn Trowbridge, said local people had already begun to collect items and money to help the family.

Speaking near the scene, she said: "This is a great community. We will all pull together and we will try to help this family as much as we possibly can."

She said the emergency services had "worked tirelessly", adding: "It must have been horrendous for them."

There was a special service at Castle Church in Stafford at 19:00 GMT.

The Rev Philip Sowerbutts said: "It will take this community a long time to get over such devastation.

"We as a church family along with all the other agencies have got to be here and stand together."

The nearby Signpost Centre on Auden Way has become one of many collection points for people looking to make donations to the family.

Ken Down, who runs the centre, said: "Lots of people who knew the family were in the cafe this morning talking about it. There is lots of sadness.

"We are open five days a week for anyone who is having any issues. If they are feeling really upset about it they can come here and talk to us."

Image caption,
Ken Down runs the nearby Signpost Centre

A donation page set up to help the family "rebuild their lives" has amassed more than £12,000 since it was launched.

Its founder, Stephen Glover, whose daughter attended the same school as Riley Holt, said he was "delighted" at the generosity of people not only from Stafford but all over the country.

Housing association Stafford and Rural Homes, which owns the property, said it was assisting the police and fire service with investigations.

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