Massive Fire Engulfs Ontario, Canada Farmhouse; Mother and Her Seven Children Dead

PELHAM, Ont. (CP) -- A rural Ontario community was left reeling with grief Tuesday after a mother and her seven children perished in a massive overnight inferno that reduced their farmhouse to a blackened, smouldering ruin.

More than 40 firefighters arrived at the scene in the township of West Lincoln, south of Grimsby, Ont., just before midnight Monday night to find the two-storey home completely engulfed in flames.

``There was no possibility of rescue,'' a grim-faced Pelham fire Chief Scott McLeod told a news conference in this town 10 minutes west of Niagara Falls as he gave an eyewitness account of the devastation.

``(Fire) was venting out all the windows, all the doors, and it was through the roof. The building was unstable at that point. There was no possibility of even making an entry into the building.''

Police identified the dead as Monika Woerlen, 39, and her children Susanna, 11, Elena, 10, Marcus, 8, Samuel, 7, Paul, 5, Nathan, 3, and Debora, 19 months.

Police also believe Monika Woerlen was pregnant. Her husband Marc, 41, was not home at the time.

Neighbour Don Swayze said he knew something was wrong when he returned from an overnight hunting trip and saw the flashing lights of fire trucks.

``It's a tremendous loss,'' said Swayze's wife Patricia, who said they were stunned by the death of a family that was ``very well-liked'' by local residents.

``There are no words to describe our feelings other than that we are devastated by the loss,'' Niagara police Supt. Damian Parrent said, reading a prepared statement from family members.

``We will sorely miss them all.''

Firefighters brought the blaze under control about an hour after arriving on the scene, but the remains of the farmhouse continued to smoulder Tuesday morning, the acrid smell of smoke still heavy in the air.

McLeod said the cause of the fire isn't yet known, but foul play is not suspected.

At the time of the fire, Marc Woerlen was in Ottawa, where the family had been planning to move.

``Monika displayed a cheerful and joyful attitude towards life,'' Parrent read. ``She was a true helper, one who often did all she could to lighten the load of those whom she noticed burdened down by the cares of life.''

Police said six bodies had been recovered by Tuesday afternoon, with the search expected to continue through the evening and into Wednesday.

Flames had consumed much of the building and a good portion of the rubble was in the basement.

``There's quite a bit of devastation; they're going to have to dig it out by hand to recover evidence and any persons in the house,'' said Niagara police Const. Richard Geady.

``We have to take it apart, basically layer by layer.''

Police chaplain John Ripley said he had met with distraught relatives.

``It's devastating for those people who are close to the family,'' Ripley said. ``The challenge that they are going to have to face in the next little while of trying to deal with this is just beyond belief.''

The Ontario Fire Marshal's Office, the regional coroner and Niagara regional police are investigating the fire.

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