Family of five killed in 'suspicious' fire

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The Independent Online

A mother and her four daughters have died in a blaze at their home and the father is critically ill in hospital, the fire service said today.

The bodies of the woman, named locally as a 39-year-old community centre worker, and the four girls were recovered by firefighters in Accrington, Lancashire, in the early hours.

The mother was said to also have a fifth child who has been receiving hospital treatment for leukaemia.

The father is in a critical condition in the specialist burns unit at Manchester's Wythenshawe Hospital.

Friend and neighbour Saeeda Farook paid tribute to the "angels" who died in the fire.

She named the mother as Caneze Riaz, a child project co-ordinator at a local community centre.

Her four daughters were named locally as Sairah, 16, Sophia, 12, Alisha, aged eight or nine, and Hannah, three and a half.

Ms Farook said: "She was so beautiful. She was so lovely. All the daughters they were like angels. They were beautiful.

"She was looking after them so well. I just can't believe what's happened."

The father of the girls, Mrs Riaz's husband Mohammed, is in his mid-40s, she said.

The couple also have a son, Adam, 17, who has leukaemia and is being treated at the Christie cancer hospital in Manchester.

Zeenat Begum, 24, who worked with Mrs Riaz, saw rescue workers bring the girls' bodies out this morning.

She said: "We saw the bodies coming out one by one. First they brought Alisha out, then Caneze.

"I got a phone call last night saying there's a fire at Caneze's house - come down.

"We don't know what's happened. Next door heard banging on the walls but couldn't break the door down. It looks like the fire was upstairs."

A Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said he believed police are treating the blaze as "suspicious" - although Lancashire Police would not confirm this.

The family was discovered upstairs at the end-terrace house in Tremellen Street just before 2am, where the blaze had already taken a strong hold.

Firefighters broke in through a bay window at the front of the house before finding the bodies.

The upstairs of the house and its staircase had suffered severe damage.

Michael Frankland, East Lancashire community protection manager for the fire service, said the blaze was one of the worst he has seen in his 26 years' experience.

He said: "We believe the police are treating it as suspicious. We are gathering a specialist forensic team.

"We will be entering the building shortly to analyse all the information and proceed more fully."

Firefighters were quickly on the scene following calls at around 1.50am from members of the public and neighbours.

Two fire tenders arrived within three and a half minutes and a third arrived within six minutes.

Mr Frankland said firefighters had started to break down the door - but encountered difficulty as there were several major locks on it.

"It took a little while to break in and gain access," he said.

"There was a very severe house fire - one of the worst I have seen in terms of damage."

The occupants were recovered "quite quickly" - but the mother and four daughters were pronounced dead at the scene, he said.

The family, who were Muslims, lived in the last house at the far end of the street, which leads to Hyndburn Park Primary School.

Alisha attended the school, according to neighbours.

Sairah, who was due to take her GCSEs next year, was at Moorhead High School.

Family friend Ghazala Ahmed, who had known Mrs Riaz for five years because their children played together, paid tribute to her friend.

"They were so friendly and generous. She fitted in really well with the community, she was really well-liked."

She said Mrs Riaz, who was mixed race, was born in the UK but had been educated in Pakistan.

She went on: "She came back to England when she was 16. They have been married for about 20 years.

"They got on well with everyone. She was a bit down about her son's illness - but she never showed it.

"I asked her that day at Eid and she said 'I'm absolutely fine'. She said Adam was getting better. She never showed that she was sad about it. She was really brave about it - you would never see her cry."

Mrs Riaz headed a "child improvement programme" for the Hyndburn Cultural Association.

The organisation works with schools and mosques to help young Asian people engage in community projects and access services in a bid to curb high unemployment, poor health and poor academic achievement.

She was also a board member of the Hyndburn Community Network, which brings together community, voluntary and faith sector groups in the area.

Neighbours of the family said Mr Riaz worked at a plastics factory in Blackburn.

Information has not yet been released on where the seat of the fire was.

"We need to get into the house and start doing some forensic tests," said Mr Frankland.

He added: "It is tragic for firefighters to be rescuing young children.

"It will be a tragedy for the local community."

He said the house is "right next to a local school, so they will hear about it.

"Most people probably know the children locally."

Tremellen Street resident George Wade, who lives a few doors down from the scene of the blaze, said he was "in deep shock" to hear of the deaths.

He said: "I saw the family about, all the kids. I don't know them very well, but they seemed a good family.

"They just knocked through the two end-terrace houses recently to make one so they had more space together.

"I'm in deep shock, it's terrible news. I must have slept through everything."