CITRA — They tried.
The people who live up and down this skinny dirt road off U.S. 301, those who saw the flames Monday night and heard the crackling and screams, broke windows and singed their eyebrows trying to get the kids out. The firefighters, who brought a half-dozen trucks and rescue units, who bore hoses and axes against a flaming monster 40 feet tall, wanted nothing more.
The kids' own mother and grandmother, gagging on smoke and bleeding, tried to return as flames danced out the windows and licked at the giant live oak in front of the wooden 80-year-old rental house at 1760 NE 182nd Place.
The fire was just too much.
"We couldn't do nothing," said neighbor Dennis Flood, 44, who had tried to drag his water hose to the fight. "We couldn't get closer than 10 feet."
Trapped inside were the five children of Krista Jordan, a night-shift manager at the McDonalds by Interstate 75.
They were Joseph, 15; Austin, 13; Shyanne, 12; William Jr., 8; and Trenity, 6.
"My babies!" the mother cried, until they put her on a stretcher and carried her away. "Someone get my babies!"
• • •
Her babies were a handful, neighbors said, but they were sweet.
The older boys were always borrowing wrenches to fix their go carts, and they were the kind of kids who brought the tools back. They looked after each other. They ran footraces through the dirt lot and sometimes let their little sister Trenity, nicknamed Skeeter, win. Skeeter wore her hair short and straight. She liked school and was smart. William Jr. had ADHD, but his new medicine was working.
They wrestled with their old dogs in the yard and pestered the two cantankerous white geese their dad bought them a few years ago. William Jordan split from their mom, the neighbors said, and lives in Lake City. He visited a lot.
The kids rode their skateboards at the First Baptist Church and slung the football until it got too dark to see. They played hide-and-go-seek under a live oak canopy that shaded the old house. Citra, between Ocala and Gainesville, is cloaked in live oaks.
The day the children died, they ate apples and drank juice boxes outside, laughing. Before they went inside, they played on a pile of old dead trees in the woods behind the house.
• • •
Twelve hours later, on Tuesday morning, investigators from the State Fire Marshal's Office sifted through the charred remnants of the 1,400-square-foot house. They walked past melted bed frames, twisted tin and smoldering two-by-fours, smoke still wafting from what was left of the floorboards in the bedrooms where children died.
"It takes a toll," said Lt. Robby Stephens from the State Fire Marshal's Office. "Most of the guys standing up here are fathers, brothers, sons. So, mentally, it's a task."
Investigators believed the fire was caused by a space heater near the front of the house. They did not suspect foul play.
A spokeswoman for Marion County Fire Rescue said the first call came in at 10:34 Monday night. Firefighters at a station two blocks away were notified at 10:37. By the time they arrived, at 10:42, the house was 90 percent engulfed in flames that lit the cool night.
Firefighters pulled the two girls from the house, but the sisters died on the way to the hospital. They also rescued the children's aunt, 21-year-old Kyla Cole. She was in critical condition at Shands at the University of Florida.
Krista Jordan and her mother, Linda Cole, 54, were in stable condition at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, too distraught to talk.
• • •
Robert Cole was watching the news at home in Kissimmee early Tuesday. As soon as he heard the ages of the kids, he knew they were his grandchildren. He raced to the scene in a daze.
"I can't find my oldest daughter anywhere," he said, close enough to the smoldering pile to smell the burn. "I haven't heard nothing except what was on the news."
The old man stared in disbelief at the ash. He wore a red T-shirt and jeans and Velcro shoes. He said his heart hurt and he rubbed his chest.
"This is about to kill me," he said. "The last time I seen 'em they were playing. Now they're all gone."
He was quiet for a while.
"My God," he said. "All five of 'em in one lick."
His eyes welled.
"How do you go on without them?" he said. "I'm so used to being around them. How do you go on?"
• • •
Neighbors gathered to see what was left. To see firsthand what the monster fire had done.
They hugged each other outside the yellow tape that marked the perimeter of the property.
They talked about it at Ted's Restaurant on 301, at the Citra Super Market, at the Olde Tyme Bread House, and at the children's school, where 18 counselors were on hand to help the kids.
"Everybody knows everybody here," said J.R. Martinez, 32, standing in the Orange Shop. "Something like this happens and everybody comes together."
This is the kind of place where you can buy a used Camaro or a single-shot 12-gauge or baby pigs from the bulletin board hanging outside the post office. Horse country, with rolling green pastures, and orange country, where the right wind still carries that soft blossom perfume.
At the First Baptist Church, the regulars were pooling resources in the Fellowship Hall. They held a yard sale last weekend, and what was left over they will donate to the family. They have decided to hold a fish fry Saturday to raise money.
They prayed, too, that God would use them to comfort the family. "That we could be his hands and his feet," said Louise Kelley, 68.
The Jordans visited here a few times. They weren't regulars, but that didn't matter.
"We're rallying together," said Cindi Jacobs, the pastor's wife. She said the group that runs the cemetery has donated five burial plots, and the churches are searching for a used car to donate. Anything else anybody can give will go straight to the family.
"The reality is that we can't change what's been done," she said. "So our goal is to minister to the family. To do unto them as we'd have done unto us."
A few blocks away, Dennis Flood still hadn't slept. He kept looking at what was left of the house next door. He wondered what he was going to tell his own boys about what happened. About the randomness of death. About how to move on.
"It just don't make no sense," he said. "No sense at all."
Times staff writer Danny Valentine and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.