WELEETKA, Okla. – An 8-year-old boy who smelled smoke and got out of bed while an alarm rang in his room early Monday was unable to roust anyone else in the house. By the time firefighters arrived, they were unable save six others, including four children.
"It smelled like gasoline. I had to fight to get out," Tavis Southern said near the charred home, wearing a sooty orange WWE T-shirt he had on when the fire broke out shortly after 5 a.m. "It was scary."
Officials said it appeared an electrical fire that started in the living room was to blame and the only working smoke alarm was in the boy's room.
Tavis said the fire was all around him as he tried to wake others in the home while his mother worked the overnight shift at a nursing home. Running his hands through his buzz-cut hair, he said "the TV blew up on me" before he decided to run to a neighbor's house for help. The neighbors called 911. The boy was treated for smoke inhalation at a hospital and released.
His siblings James, 3, and Barbara, 2, died in the fire, as did two other children ages 10 and 9. The older children's mother — Latoya Bush — also died, as did Bush's aunt Renee Buck, said Bush's brother-in-law, David Bush.
The Southern children's mother, Crystal Kelough, 33, had lived for about a year with Buck, who had medical problems and recently was discharged from a hospital. In return, Buck would watch Kelough's children while Kelough worked.
"I'm fortunate to have one (child) left," Kelough said hours after the fire as she huddled with distraught relatives near the still-smoldering house, her hand trembling as she tried to bring a cigarette to her lips.
Bush and her children recently moved into the brick-and-stucco bungalow-style home, a half-block down a tree-lined street from the small town's public school, where Superintendent Dan Parrish said a ministerial alliance came Monday and counselors would be available to students Tuesday.
Across the street from the charred house, Renee Buck's ex-husband, Jack, couldn't stop looking at what was left.
"I just mowed the yard for her yesterday," he said, putting his hands in his pockets. "I don't feel like talking right now. It's going bananas."
One of Renee Buck's daughters, Lindsey Clanton, sat in her car nearby chewing her fingernails.
"She opened her heart and her home to anybody," Clanton said of her mother. "That's why there's so many people in the house," she said, choking back tears.
Weleetka is about 70 miles south of Tulsa in east-central Oklahoma. The local sheriff is related to five of the victims through marriage.
"We're all a tight-knit family in Weleetka. In a town where the population is less than 800, everybody knows everybody," said neighbor Richard Abrams, who knew Buck since 1981.
Weleetka is the same town where, two summers ago, two local girls were found shot dead along a rural road. Investigators said two months ago they had made little progress in finding their killers. In March 2009, about half of the city's Main Street burned down in a fire.
"Boy, I'm telling you we need a break bad," said Parrish, the superintendent. "We've had a rough couple of years. Our little community is pretty resilient and we'll get through this."
(This version CORRECTS that Parrish is superintendent, not principal.)