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Imlay City — John Ciurla couldn't believe the crushing news coming from the radio Tuesday morning.

Three young children who lived in his trailer park had died in a fire that consumed half of their home, and four other family members were seriously injured during their escape. 

"I thought they named the wrong town. I've seen the kids outside," he said. "We are a pretty tight community. We're all in this little trailer park. It's like our own little city."

Ciurla kneltand prayed in front of the burned-out home where children's toys littered the lawn: "It's tough, I mean three kids, my God."

A 3-year-old girl and two boys, ages 5 and 6, died in the fire that began around 3:05 a.m. in the Maple Grove mobile home park in the 2000 block of South Almont, police said. 

A 1-month-old girl was taken to University of Michigan Health System's burn center. An 18-month-old boy and the children's father, 42, were at Hurley Medical Center in Flint.

All were listed in critical condition, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation, said Imlay City police Chief Scott Pike. 

The mother, 29,  was hospitalized at Lapeer McLaren Hospital and listed in stable condition Tuesday afternoon. 

“It was a tinderbox, no doubt about it," Pike said at a late-morning news conference at the police station, which was broadcast via WDIV-TV. "It burned immensely fast, and it was extreme heat. The fire was contained to the forward half of the trailer. The family members who were rescued came out the back half."

An Imlay City police officer arrived to find the mother calling from outside the home, injured and "hysterical," as the fire burned with her family inside. 

The officer burned the back of her hand when she touched the trailer, Pike said. The trailer was "engulfed in flames," said Pike, and the first wave of firefighters at the scene were unable to make entry.

A second group arrived moments later and entered the trailer, working to rescue six people, including the three children who died.

"We suspect — and I can't confirm this — it was a heating issue," Pike said. "Based on the information we have, the mobile home was having some furnace problems. Based on what the fire marshal has seen at this point, we suspect it was some kind of heating issue. They could have had an alternate heating source, an oven, I don't know."

At the news conference, Pike empathized with the woman's plight.

"Can you imagine yourself, as a mother, standing outside a burning building and knowing your family’s in there?" Pike said. "I couldn’t even fathom to describe what she was going through."

 Falyon Storm, who lives on the same street as the family, said she woke up Tuesday morning, saw the scene outside her window and broke down crying. Storm said the family lived in the area for about three years and she knows the father well. 

“He was a regular customer when I worked at Speedway down the street," said Storm. 

She said the children were the father's "world."

"He is an amazing father and would have done anything for those kids. They were the definition of family," Storm said. "I hope (the mother) gets the closure she needs. I can’t fathom what they’re feeling.” 

Jessica Shimmell, who has known the mother for 16 years, described her as a devoted stay-at-home mom.

"She loved her children very much," she said. "They were a very close family."

To aid the family's recovery, she launched a GoFundMe page.

"They need all the help they can get," Shimmell said. "They’re left with nothing. It's all overwhelming."

By late Tuesday, contributors had raised more than $8,000.

Meanwhile, Michigan State Police fire marshals will investigate the fire, Pike said, and will determine the cause of the blaze. 

Police boarded up the home, which was exposed to the frame, and wood and insulation debris covered the ground around the site. An outdoor play set with three swings and a single tricycle could be seen among the debris.

Imlay City is in Lapeer County and has about 3,500 residents.

"Fires are bad, but to lose three children, and not know what the outcome is going to be for the rest of the family, we're certainly praying and hoping for the best for them," Pike said. 

Authorities aren't sure if there were working smoke detectors in the home.

Pike said the fire was "as serious" as anything he's seen in his 31-year career in law enforcement.

"Trying to process the death of an infant, or any child, is impossible," Pike said. "You can never walk away from it unscathed.”

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed

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