Kelley Hunt was called home from work Wednesday for a family emergency he thought was as benign as his son cutting his finger.
But when he got there, his mobile home was on fire and he was told his kids were hospitalized.
After a frantic rush through the wards, asking nurses and anyone else he could find, he learned his children never made it there.
Back at home, officers on the scene told him to sit down. They told him his three children and his brother’s daughter and son had all died in the fire in Lebanon, Missouri, about 45 miles northeast of Springfield.
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"No. It's not true," he thought when they delivered the news.
That's the same thought the mother of his children had. Audrianna Middlesworth said Thursday, one day after the tragedy, that she still doesn't believe it.
"I thought it was a cruel joke. ... But the proof's there," she said, motioning toward the charred remains of a home in the 1100 block of Ivey Lane, where her children primarily lived with Hunt and his girlfriend.
Ethan, 5, Maeanna, 2 and Benjamin Hunt, 1, belonged to Middlesworth and Hunt. Hunt's brother's children also died in the fire: 6-month-old Patience and 1-year-old Andre Malleck.
Out front of the home, mother and father stood near a memorial started Wednesday afternoon when a next-door neighbor tied balloons to a fence.
The memorial has grown to dozens of items: stuffed animals, spinners, flowers, candles, more balloons and five Mason jars filled with jelly beans.
Middlesworth added five balloons and stuffed animals to the collection Thursday.
Only days before, she'd let her children pick out new toys and blankets at Walmart.
"All of them had very bubbly personalities," Middlesworth said.
Benjamin and Maeanna, though, were the most sociable, their parents said. Maeanna would say "hi" to everyone and repeat it until she received a response. She often said "bye" to cars passing by.
Recently, Maeanna and Benjamin had gotten into syrup inside the home.
Maeanna was showered in the sticky stuff, her father said, and afterward it "took an hour to get that out of her hair."
Ethan, more shy than his younger siblings, had just learned to swim two weeks earlier. Hunt had taken him to a nearby river and monitored as his oldest son swam after refusing to use his floaties.
"Really, really? He finally learned how to swim?" Middlesworth said to Hunt.
Hunt said the mother of the other two children, who was babysitting when the fire broke out, still doesn't know her babies died.
She suffered burns across 75 percent of her body, he said, and has not yet regained consciousness.
"As far as she knows the children are still alive. She doesn't even know they passed away. She was unconscious the whole time, and my brother doesn't know how to break it to her when she wakes up," Hunt said.
"And I still think this is a joke. ... I feel like I'm just going to wake up at any time."
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, Lebanon fire Chief Sam Schneider said Thursday.
Four firefighters suffered minor injuries. None was hospitalized.
Several of the firefighters fell through the floor during the incident, and Schneider confirmed that the first firefighter to arrive on scene entered the burning building through a window in an attempt to save the children, but he was pushed back by the flames and smoke.
"He did what we're trained to do, what we're called to do," the chief said. "He took every effort he could to try to locate the victims."
Peggy McElwain, a friend of the family, created a GoFundMe account for the families, which has raised $240 of a $5,000 goal.
"There are no words," McElwain said. "My heart's broke. ... My heart's completely broke."
Some businesses in town, including the Shades of Gray Boutique, The Ozz Emporium and Jones' Truck Plaza, have set out donation jars.
Cynthia Miller, the neighbor who started the memorial in the front yard with balloons, said the children's grandfather stopped by her home to thank her Thursday.
"I'm going to miss seeing his grandbabies on the porch," she said, adding she often observed the children's father and girlfriend "loving on them, kissing on them," enjoying picnics in the shade.
Hunt and Middlesworth said a candlelight vigil is scheduled for Sunday at 4 p.m. at Atchley Park in town.
The former couple met in a New York middle school. He was 13 and she was 12.
"I bullied her, put gum in her hair and she beat me," Hunt said.
"I did not!" Middlesworth countered. They were together since, until about nine months ago.
Both thanked the community for the outpouring of support.
"I didn't think anybody cared. I thought they'd forget after a day," Hunt said.
Middlesworth added, "They were really good kids. And they were very loved."