DEPOY, KY. — Eight of the nine bodies were found together in the master bedroom of the small, white clapboard house gutted by fire — with another body just 15 feet away.
LaRae "Nikki" Watson, 35, and eight of her children — Madison, 15; Kaitlyn, 14; Morgan, 13; Emily, 9; Samuel, 8; Raegan, 6; and twin sons Mark and Nathaniel, 4 — were killed when a baseboard heater ignited combustible material in the room where most of the children were asleep, touching off the fierce blaze early Thursday morning.
"To think of those children," 81-year-old J.T. Rose of Depoy said, stopping in midsentence as he stood near the house amid more than a dozen media vehicles Thursday afternoon. "It's just very hard to understand."
The fire's sole survivors were father Chad Watson, 36, and 11-year-old daughter Kylie, who were both being treated at Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Both suffered smoke inhalation that damaged their lungs. Hospital spokesman Doug Campbell said both were in critical but stable condition Thursday afternoon.
Kylie also was burned and cut on her arms and face, although her injuries were not as severe as her father's, said Kevin McGhee, who talked with his brother-in-law, Chad Watson, outside the burning house.
"Me and Kylie are the only ones that made it," McGhee said Chad Watson told him shortly before the father and daughter were taken to Vanderbilt. "I went in three times. I did all I could. The rest of them have gone to be with a loving God."
Watson and Kylie were outside the fully engulfed home on Motes Lane when firefighters arrived at 2:14 a.m. Thursday, 13 minutes after receiving the call. Kentucky State Police and state fire officials continue to investigate the case, but state police said in a news release "that an electric baseboard heater located in a bedroom ignited some nearby combustibles."
This is Kentucky's third fire in a little more than a year that has killed five or more people. Last January, four children under 6 and their father were killed in a blaze near Pikeville in Eastern Kentucky that also severely burned their mother. Authorities said the home lacked a smoke detector.
In March, a fire at a home in the Southern Kentucky community of Gray killed a young couple and five children, the oldest of whom was 3.
Praying for recovery
Thursday afternoon, family members of the Watsons stood in the hall outside the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Burn Unit waiting room in Tennessee, tears spilling from their eyes, praying for a quick recovery for Chad Watson and Kylie.
"We're looking for a silver lining," said Chad Watson's first cousin, Adam Brown. "We're looking for a good outcome. Our family is known to be Christians in our community, and that's how they identify us. It's easy to be seen in that respect when things are going good, but it's times like this that you've got to prove your faith, so we want people to know that even though today's not good, and the consequences aren't good, the Lord's still good."
McGhee said Kylie's sedation had begun to wear off Thursday afternoon and she was responsive. The family was notified that Chad Watson's blood levels were almost back to normal.
"They expect Kylie to have a high percentage of recovery," McGhee said. "They don't know what the extent of damage would be, but as far as surviving, she should come through. Chad's still not out of the woods. ... They're both stabilized."
'Like a nightmare'
The loss took an unspeakable toll on the tiny community, an unincorporated area tucked into the rolling farmland country just outside Greenville in Muhlenberg County.
The median household income for Muhlenberg County was $38,835, according to the most recent U.S. census data. Almost 20 percent of people lived below the poverty level.
The Watson family reflected that struggle. Chad Watson works in construction and delivers newspapers, while his wife, LaRae, worked in the home and watched the children. The family lived in the three-bedroom house.
"We can't believe it, everybody is just devastated," family friend and fellow Calvary Baptist Church member Sarah Williams said through tears. "It's like a nightmare."
Williams, who has known the Watsons for years, recalled them as a tight-knit family devoted to their faith and each other. She said the news of their deaths — and a father and daughter's struggle for life — is a message to parents everywhere about their children.
"Just hold 'em so tight," she said, her voice wavering. "Then don't let 'em go."