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The deaths of a pregnant woman and her seven children in a house fire left this small farming community 30 miles west of Niagara Falls in a state of disbelief Tuesday as investigators searched for a cause.

Fire officials called it the worst blaze in Ontario in more than a decade.

"This is beyond imagination," said Ardeth Staz, superintendent of the school district where four of the children were educated.

The century-old farmhouse that burned to the ground late Monday had been listed for sale for several months, police said.

Six bodies had been recovered by late Tuesday and two were still unaccounted for but believed to be in the blackened ruins of the house, Pelham Fire Chief Scott McLeod said.

Killed in the blaze were Monika Woerlen, 39; and her children, Susanna, 11; Elena, 10; Marcus, 8; Samuel, 7; Paul, 5; Nathan, 3; and Debora, 19 months.

The father, Marc, 41, was in Ottawa, making plans for the family to move there, said Constable George Bench of Niagara Regional Police Service. The couple has family there, Bench said.

Marc Woerlen and family members from Ottawa were driving back to the Niagara Falls area Tuesday.

Fire consumed the house before anyone could escape, Bench said.

McLeod said any attempt to flee the burning house could not be determined from the location of the bodies.

"We just don't know what happened in the house," he said.

The first firefighters on the scene -- noting the "for sale" sign out front and the eerie silence inside -- said they thought the old farmhouse was abandoned.

The fire call came in at 11:20 p.m. Monday. The first units arrived 10 minutes later. More than 40 volunteer firefighters from the Pelham and West Lincoln departments battled the blaze at 3903 Concession Road Four, about three miles from the West Lincoln intersection of Highway 20 and Victoria Avenue.

Firefighters said the fire burned out of control for an hour until the two-story wood house collapsed into a smoldering heap of debris.

The bodies were taken to Hamilton General Hospital for post-mortem examinations. An investigation into the cause of the fire by the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office will take two or three days to complete, McLeod said.

Firefighters said it is unlikely the oil-heated farmhouse was equipped with any kind of fire alarm or smoke detectors.

Foul play is not suspected, McLeod said.

Neighbors along the country road spoke well of the Woerlen family.

"They were the nicest people you'd ever hope to meet," said John Ross, who also lives on Concession Road Four. "They were a very close family."

A few miles west of the house, on Highway 20 at Gainsborough Elementary School, shock and disbelief gripped classmates of four of the fire victims. Some of their fathers were among the firefighters who battled the blaze.

"This is a horrific event in our small community," said Susan MacNeil, the principal. "They were wonderful children, and the students and staff here are devastated."

Grief counselors spent most of Tuesday talking to many of the 280 pupils, she said. All outside activities have been placed on hold for the next few days, but classes will continue.

"This will be a challenging time for the people at Gainsborough," MacNeil said, "but this is a very strong community, and we'll get through it together."


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