ZEPHYRHILLS — The wheelchairs wouldn't fit in the house so the children had to be carried. Discs in her back ruptured from the lifting, in and out of the bath, up for a changing, into the living room, onto their beds, but Anise Bourque refused to accept pity. She said God gave her Hunter, 10, and Mackenze, 9, for a reason.
Hunter and his twin brother, Walker, were born prematurely at 26 weeks and spent their first three months in the hospital. Walker was fine. Hunter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He was partially blind, had terrifying grand mal seizures and nearly died several times.
Mackenze had no definite diagnosis. She wasn't quite as fragile as her brother, but neither could crawl, gesture or communicate. Bourque, 36, said she could understand them, and they had their own language. They laughed when she tickled them.
"They have a purpose," Bourque often told her sister, Amanda Bourque.
Anise Bourque also had another child, 8-year-old Austin, a fine and healthy boy. Austin's father, James Moore, 34, has acted as a father to Hunter, Walker and Mackenze for the past nine years. They all lived in a small trailer with a red door and lattice at the River Haven Mobile Home Park. They planted bright flowers around the border. All four children caught the bus to school, with Mackenze and Hunter attending a special needs class at Centennial Elementary.
Moore did maintenance at the mobile home park, which is what he was doing when Bourque came to get him about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday when it was time for Hunter and Mackenze's dinner and bath. She had just walked away from the house when Walker ran up behind her.
"Mommy,'' he said, "there's smoke."
• • •
Bourque, barefoot, ran back to her trailer. Thick black streams churned out of Hunter and Mackenze's bedroom, where Bourque had left them moments earlier.
She opened the door and her two dogs ran out. She tried to get to the bedroom, but the fire was so intense. Flames burned her face, hands, feet. Her hair sizzled. She couldn't reach them.
Bourque staggered out.
"Help," she screamed. "My babies are burning up."
William Dawson, who lives across the street, first tried to crawl inside through a door, belly on the ground, like they taught in school, but was pushed back. Then he grabbed a spade to hack his way in from the outside. When that didn't work, he used his fists, punching the siding.
It was chaos. One man used a pocketknife. Another an ax. Bill Heissler, a next door neighbor, shimmied in between the children's bedroom window and a shed, which blackened and bubbled in the heat. Heissler had a water hose in one hand and with his other, he punched through the glass and ripped the screen off. Through the window he saw blackness with a core of orange, tornado flames whirling.
The men tried another side, hacking a hole to the room.
Moore, who had come running, stuck his head in.
"I can see her arm. I can see her arm," Moore shouted. "Somebody grab my baby.
"She's on fire."
The hole wasn't big enough. Mike Fall ran from his mother's house with a chain saw and cut into the trailer, shredded yellow insulation flying. This hole was bigger. Heissler had his head through it when a firefighter grabbed him by the belt and pulled him out.
And then they waited. Hoping.
"I know it's bad," Bourque kept saying.
Hunter and Mackenze were dead.
• • •
The state fire marshal's office spent Wednesday investigating but didn't release the cause of the fire. Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff's Office, said a child protection unit had responded to the home some years ago, but the complaint that attracted them proved to be unfounded.
Bourque suffered third-degree burns on her hands. She was treated at a hospital Tuesday night and released. Bourque, Moore, Walker and Austin are staying with family members. The only things the fire didn't take, other than each other, are their pickup truck and Hunter and Mackenze's wheelchairs.
Her sister Amanda says she keeps asking one question: "Why did God take my babies?"
She cannot understand a world where her dogs survived and her children didn't. Her sister doesn't know what to say.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.