Neighbours say they received no answer when they banged on the door of a burning home and shouted the names of the family members who were later found dead inside the house in a rural community northwest of Edmonton.
The bodies of married couple Janet and Marvin Gibbs and their three grandchildren were discovered in their Rochfort Bridge, Alta., home that was destroyed by the fire on Thursday.
Their remains weren’t recovered until Friday when police said the fire was not believed to be suspicious.
Marvin and Janet had full custody of Janet’s daughter’s kids, Marvin’s sister-in-law Effie Gibbs said in an interview on Saturday. Family members confirmed Janet was 49, Marvin was 81, and the children were between the ages of two and eight years old.
“[Marvin] was a very good man. He was a bit slow at getting around,” Effie said, adding that he was a welder, carpenter and a volunteer firefighter.
She described the children as “very happy kids”
Rochfort Bridge is a small community of about 50 people, some 130 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
Marvin’s daughter, Mysty Schallock, said her father had lived in the community since 1974.
“My dad was a good man. He loved his family. He loved his community,” she said.
She described Janet as a friend, and said Janet and Marvin loved each other deeply.
“They were very rarely ever apart,” she said. “Where you saw one, you saw the other.”
Schallock said the grief is hitting her in different ways, and the family is desperate for answers about what happened.
“There’s anger. There’s confusion. There’s overwhelming pain,” she said. “There are so many emotions, you can’t even put a name on them.”
Janet’s sister, Bertha Alexis, said she learned about what had happened in a phone call.
“I was just devastated. I just went numb and weak,” Alexis said in an interview on Saturday. “It’s very hard to try to be strong, but I just keep breaking down.”
She described her sister as a quiet, caring woman who had a good heart.
“She always had good things to say about people,” said Alexis, who called her sister Bunny.
“She was always talking about her grandkids.”
The grandchildren — two boys and a girl — got on well, Alexis said.
“They were playful with each other,” she said. “They were really good kids.”
‘You couldn’t hear anything but the sparks’
Neighbour Ragan Allen said that though the Gibbs family used a wood stove, she noticed smoke above the home on Thursday afternoon that just didn’t look right. She jumped in her truck and headed over.
“You could see at the back door, where the stove pipe is, the flames were shooting out around the stove pipe,” she said.
“There was people knocking on the door, neighbours yelling and calling names.”
She said 911 was called, but soon the group began to think no one was in the home because no one was responding. It was around school dismissal time so they assumed the grandparents may have been out picking up the kids.
“We had never heard anyone crying, or yelling for help, or nothing. There was nothing. You couldn’t hear anything but the sparks,” she said.
They did not find out the whole family had died until the next day.
‘It leaves a hole’
The impact on the community will be felt deeply, neighbours say.
“[Marvin] always took care of this community. He kept us safe. He was just wonderful,” said Gail Kelly, whose mother went to school with the 81-year-old.
Both Kelly and Allen said they’d often spot Marvin out doing roadwork for the hamlet, clearing ditches and shovelling snow. He was never without a thermos of coffee. Often, Janet was out with him.
Kelly said Janet was shy, but she got to know her a bit over the years over cups of tea.
“She was very sweet,” Kelly said.
There are few youngsters in Rochfort Bridge, so Janet’s three grandchildren were a welcome addition to the community, said Robert Hook. Hearing laughing and shouting at all hours was a joy.
“It was good to see kids around here for a change,” he said.
After multiple Halloweens without any trick-or-treaters knocking on their door, Hook said it was a welcome surprise when Marvin brought the kids by this year.
He said the community will miss the family.
“It leaves a hole,” he said.
On Saturday morning, heavy equipment sat quietly next to the charred remains of the home. A backhoe was parked next to a pile of debris.
The smell of charred wood lingered, and neighbour Mike Hermann said he had to call firefighters late Friday to extinguish the pile when it briefly reignited.
Hermann has lived next to Marvin for about 25 years and was with Ragan and other neighbours who ran to the house to see if anyone was inside.
Update expected next week
RCMP confirmed Friday that both police and firefighters responded to the blaze Thursday afternoon, but that, despite “extensive efforts,” the house was destroyed.
Police have not confirmed the names or ages of the victims.
RCMP have brought Victim Services into the community for those in need.
RCMP Alberta Cpl. Laurel Scott said Saturday that police will likely issue an update early next week after receiving a report from fire investigators.