Shock at children's deaths in fire

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The Independent Online

Friends of a woman whose four children died in a fire at their home have spoken of their shock over the tragedy.

The children, all under the age of 10, died after a blaze broke out and engulfed the property while they slept upstairs.

Neighbours struggled to reach the two boys and two girls as the fire swept through the house last night in Hulland Ward, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire, but could not open the front door of the property.

The 45-year-old mother, named locally as Rachel Henson, escaped and then tried unsuccessfully to get back into the house to rescue her children. She is being treated in hospital for smoke inhalation.

Two of the children, a boy aged nine and a girl aged two, were carried out of the house by firefighters but later died in hospital.

The bodies of the two other children, a six-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy, were later found inside the semi-detached house in Highfield Road.

As news of the tragedy spread through the local community, friends of the children's mother paid tribute to the family.

Vivyan Manion, who runs an antiques store next to the barber's shop, Boyz, which Ms Henson runs, said she was a "trendy mum" who made time for her children.

"We used to see the children around the shop sometimes and I know she did a lot with them, she used to take them to Matlock illuminations and on days out, they did a lot together."

She said Ms Henson was very hard-working and popular in the town.

She added: "Her little girl was sweet and used to come in here and have a chat. She used to say to me, 'Mummy's busy cutting hair'.

"Rachel was always very busy and sometimes even used to open on Sundays, which I don't know how she did that with four children."

Around half a dozen floral tributes had been left outside Boyz in the centre of Ashbourne and a picture of one of the girls had been pinned to the front door.

Chris Beech, whose parents own the store next door to the barber's, came to lay a bunch of flowers and said: "Rachel's just a lovely person, always bubbly, and she lived for her kids."

One of the cards that had been left with a bunch of flowers said: "Our hearts go out to you at such a tragic loss."

Another said: "For four beautiful children. Taken too early."

The cause of the fire, which broke out on the ground floor while the children slept upstairs, is not yet known. Derbyshire Constabulary and Derbyshire Fire Service have launched a joint investigation.

Chief Superintendent Peter Lewis said there was no reason to believe that rumours circulating in the local community that a former partner of Ms Henson had previously threatened to set fire to her house were true.

He said: "I've got to say any speculation with regard to that at this stage would be unhelpful.

"We have got no evidence of such threats but obviously everything we hear we are looking into."

He said Ms Henson was conscious in hospital and specially trained officers were with her but would not confirm if she had been told about the deaths of her children.

Brian Sellers, a neighbour of the family, said the mother had lived in the house for about 10 years.

The 63-year-old said: "By the time the fire service arrived, the blaze was well on its way and I don't think they had much chance.

"It's a shock for everyone here. It just feels really strange."

Residents tried to reach the occupants of the house but could not open the front door. That door, as well as the front and side windows of the property, were badly scorched by the fire.

About 20 firefighters helped to bring the blaze under control.

Gavin Tomlinson, from Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, said of the neighbours' attempts to help: "I'm aware that they did try to get into the door on the ground floor but it was locked. We effected the rescues from the first floor using a ladder."

He said the fire service was keeping an "open mind" as to the cause of the blaze, and could not say whether it was suspicious.

The first floor of the house was badly damaged by the fire, with two windows at the back pulled out and parts of the charred rooms inside visible. Two ladders were propped up against the wall and a children's see-saw and slide could be seen outside.

Forensic officers have been gathering evidence at the property today. The road remains cordoned off.

One of the children was a pupil at Bradley Church of England Primary School while another attended St Oswald's CofE Infant School.

Both schools released statements saying they were devastated by the tragedy.