HALIFAX — Seven children, all members of a Syrian refugee family, died early Tuesday in a fast-moving Halifax house fire described as Nova Scotia's deadliest blaze in recent memory.
Their parents, identified as Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho, were in hospital Tuesday, where Ebraheim was fighting for his life after apparently trying in vain to save his children.
Kawthar Barho was also injured but is expected to survive. Their children ranged in age from about three months to the mid-teens.
In a brief interview from the hospital, Imam Wael Haridy of the Nova Scotia Islamic Community Centre said the Barhos had fled that country's civil war.
"We're here in hospital with a desperate mother who lost seven of her kids," he said, noting that officials are conducting DNA tests to confirm identities before they can proceed with a traditional Islamic burial process.
"She's saying to us, 'Am I going to get my children back?' ... It's so hard. It's so sad."
Many people from Halifax's tight-knit Muslim community had gathered at the hospital, he said.
"People want to try to help, but how can we ... how can we provide her with anything?" said Haridy. "It's a shock. It's a tragedy."
The family is among 1,795 Syrian refugees who have come to Nova Scotia in recent years, including 345 privately sponsored refugees.
For the Nova Scotians who sponsored the Syrian family, the news of the deaths of the children they'd grown close to came as an "unthinkable" blow.
"I think everyone is devastated and our loss pales in comparison to the parents," said Natalie Horne, vice president of the Hants East Assisting Refugees Team (HEART).
Horne said the family arrived on Sept. 29, 2017. She said the children who died are: Ahmad, 14; Rola, 12; Mohamad, 9; Ola, 8; Hala, 3; Rana, 2 and Abdullah, who was born in Canada in November.
She said the family lived in Elmsdale for over a year and then came to Halifax to be closer to refugee support services, such as English-language training.
But she said they had missed the support of the community and the HEART society and had decided to return to Elmsdale.
The tragedy struck just days before the move back would have taken place.
"We were expecting them back in our community on March. ... It was a huge loss for the family, when they moved. And they were looking forward to coming back. The children especially," she said.
The group added in a Facebook post: "For the past year and a half, the children have been able to enjoy life as kids should be able to: going to school, riding bicycles, swimming, having friends, running in the yard, celebrating birthday parties and hanging out with the neighbours on their porch swing. They loved every minute of it, and it seems impossible we won't hear their laughter and feel their hugs again."
Halifax Fire Deputy Chief Dave Meldrum told reporters it was the deadliest fire anyone could remember in the East Coast province.
"Words fail when children are taken from us too soon, especially in circumstances like this," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet.
"My heart goes out to the survivors of the horrible fire in Halifax this morning, and the loved ones who are mourning this tremendous loss."
Danielle Burt, who lives next door to the Barhos on Quartz Drive, said she heard a loud bang and a woman screaming just after 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Burt fled the house with her four children and saw the parents outside in a harrowing scene.
"The mother was on the grass, praying I guess, bowing her hands down, and pulling on my husband's arm to call 911," said Burt, her voice breaking.
"She said the kids were inside and the dad was sitting on the steps. I think he had gone back in because he was really burnt. It was just awful."
Burt said her kids had become good friends with the Barhos children.
"They were just over at our house yesterday," she said. "It's just something out of a horror movie that you just never would wish on anybody."
Rich Farrell, who lives down the street, said he and other neighbours ran up to the house as soon as the fire broke out to see if they could help. First responders were not yet on scene.
"It's so frightening but in the space of 30 seconds, it went from what looked like a little bit of flame to the whole thing just becoming engulfed," said Farrell, standing on his porch on a bitterly cold, sunny day.
"You can't say for sure what happened, but it makes you think about fire safety and what you might be able to do to protect your family."
Imam Abdallah Yousri of the Ummah Mosque and Community Centre in Halifax said the family was from Raqqa, Syria.
He said the funerals would likely be held Wednesday or Thursday.
"Our entire municipality is heartbroken and our thoughts are with the loved ones of the family," Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said in a tweet.
Jennifer Watts, CEO of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, said in an interview that staff members who worked directly with the family teaching English and providing services are heartbroken by the deaths.
"It is very, very sad this has happened ... for the Syrian community here and the wider community in Halifax," she said in a telephone interview.
"It's shocking and very sad. It's had an impact on our clients who knew them and on our staff who were working with them," she said.
Doug Hadley, a spokesman for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, said four of the children attended schools in the area — two at Central Spryfield Elementary and two at Rockingstone Heights.
"We have additional staff in place at both schools to provide support to students. They will provide support on site for as long as necessary," he said in an emailed statement.
The family's home, which was extensively damaged in the blaze, is situated in a newly built residential neighbourhood. The entire backside of the home was gutted by the blaze, and adjacent homes were also damaged.
Colourful children's toys could be seen piled in the open garage. Nearby, mourners had placed flowers and a teddy bear at the foot of a lamp post.
A neighbour who did not want to be identified told The Canadian Press she had been startled awake by screams.
"We heard horrible screams and then got up and saw the flames," she said. "It was horrible. We called 911 but it took a long time to get through because apparently everyone was calling 911 at the same time."
The fire spread very quickly as they watched, she said.
"It was really scary," she said.
"I was nervous it was going to hit the house next door but it didn't. And then the fire crews finally got here, but there were flames shooting out the front of the house, like shooting out the windows. It was horrible."
When Meldrum was asked why a fire would spread so quickly through a new home, he declined to speak about the nature of the fire in question. But in general terms, he said: "New homes are built with light-weight construction. Once fire barriers are penetrated, rapid fire spread is possible in new construction."
Halifax District Fire Chief Mike Blackburn said the fire was very heavy when they arrived, but firefighters were able to "knock it down" quickly. He suggested firefighters were deeply affected by what they saw inside the home.
"They'll process this over time but it's very difficult and it's not going to get any easier," said Blackburn.
Watts said the immigrant services association was providing trauma counselling to friends and people shaken by the tragedy.
"This is a moment for all of us in our communities to think about reaching out to immigrants and newcomers who don't have all the family and friends in the community and building those relationships ... so that people don't feel alone and disconnected when something like this happens," she said.
A fundraising campaign, organized by family friends including the Imam Council of Halifax, has been launched to help the grieving parents.
"They have lost all their children," the Go Fund Me page, called Halifax House Fire Tragedy, said. "Mother is thankfully safe but the husband is facing life threatening injuries."
"We need to support them in facing their calamity and help them finding a new shelter and pay for expected expenses," the page said. "It's hard to estimate how much they'll need to restart their lives."
— With files from Keith Doucette and Michael MacDonald
Aly Thomson, Brett Bundale and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press