A Thompson family is grieving the loss of four young children after an Oct. 26 house fire.
Four siblings, ranging in age from four to 10 years old, were trapped on the second floor of the Queen’s Bay duplex as it burned, while their 13-year-old sister, their mother and another adult got out of the home and were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
The 13-year-old escaped by jumping out of a second floor window, Manitoba RCMP said in on Oct. 27 press release. The two adults were in the basement and came upstairs when they heard the fire but were unable to go up to the second floor because of the flames and smoke.
The four children were removed from the home once firefighters got the blaze under control and taken to Thompson General Hospital for treatment, but all four died of their injuries.
“It’s devastating what happened,” Shirley Robinson, a Pimicikamak Cree Nation councillor who is acting as the family’s spokesperson, told the Winnipeg Free Press. “It’s affecting two (First) Nations, which is Cross Lake and Split Lake.”
Shelley Thomas, the mother of the children who escaped the fire, was released from hospital on Thursday, according to Robinson, who is her cousin.
Thomas is a Pimicikamak Cree Nation member and the children’s father is a Tataskweyak Cree Nation member.
Helen Joy Keeper, 10, Leon Keeper Jr., 9, Big Bear Keeper, 7, who was going to celebrate his eighth birthday on Thursday, and Rowan Thomas, 4, were the children who died, Robinson told the Free Press.
Thompson RCMP were in the neighbourhood on an unrelated call around 8:40 p.m. when they heard noise further down the street and saw smoke. They and Thompson Fire & Emergency Services firefighters arrived on the scene to find one side of the side-by-side duplex fully engulfed in flames.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.
“I offer my sincere condolences to the family, the community, and to everyone who is grieving today,” said Manitoba RCMP commanding officer Asst. Commissioner Rob Hill. “This is a heartbreaking tragedy that will have a lasting impact on so many within Thompson and throughout the entire province.”
A neighbour told the Free Press that her son was outside and saw the fire. She went out briefly and then went back inside to call the fire department. She described the smoke as making it difficult to breathe.
The Thompson Professional Firefighters Association said in a social media post that its members’ thoughts and prayers went out to family and friends of the children.
Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook, who has grandchildren around the same ages as the victims, told the Canadian Press that the news made her sick to her stomach.
“So many people are going to be affected by this,” she said.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an advocacy organization that represents 26 Northern Manitoba First Nations, expressed its condolences to everyone affected by the tragedy.
“'The loss of children due to such a tragedy is heartbreaking,” said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee. “This tragedy will affect people in Thompson but also in MKO First Nations, as the family has ties to two of our communities. I stand with all those who are mourning.”
MKO said its mobile crisis response team would be supporting affected community members and that it has also reached out to the school the children attended to see how they can help support the siblings’ classmates.
Thompson MLA Eric Redhead addressed the fire in the legislature on Oct. 27.
“I would like to ask the House to keep the family and the community in their thoughts and prayers in the coming days,” Redhead said. MLAs then observed a moment of silence in remembrance of the four children.
A GoFundMe campaign to support the family has raised about $5,700 as of noon Oct. 28.
A flashlight prayer vigil in support of the family is planned for Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. on Queens Bay
This is the first fatal fire in Thompson since a January 2020 blaze that claimed the life of a 20-year-old woman.