In the aftermath of the blaze that razed his home and left him as the sole survivor early Saturday, fire officials in Mississippi say the lifeless bodies of five of Jake Presley’s six children were found huddled together in one room while the bodies of his wife and another child were found in another bedroom.
"They say you're not supposed to question God, but how can you have anything like this happen and not ask why," family friend Lynn Lee, who is a member at Raymond Road Baptist Church where the entire family were members, said as the congregation grieved Sunday in a WAPT report.
Fire Chief Jeff Blackledge told The New York Times that firefighters responded to a call around 12:30 a.m. and found the Presley family home on Old Vicksburg Road in Clinton engulfed in flames.
“At the time, they didn’t know how many people were inside the house, if anybody,” Chief Blackledge said.
They later discovered that inside the home were Jake’s wife, Brittany, 33, and their six children identified by city officials as: Lane, 13; Lawson, 12; Grayson, 6; Malcom, 4; Felicity, 1; and Landon Brookshire, 15.
Allen Short, a neighbor, told WLBT3 that Jake Presley tried desperately to save his family but the attempt only left him with second-degree burns and smoke inhalation for which he is currently being treated in hospital.
Short also raised concern that burglar bars on the family home may have been a factor in the family’s inability to escape the fire.
“I’d seen the dad and he told me, he didn’t think nobody else had gotten out. And, of course, with the burglary bars being on the house, I don’t know if that was a big factor in him trying to get them out and everything. It’s just — it’s just devastating,” said Short.
“[Jake Presley’s] hair was singed and he had a big cut on his arm where he busted one of the windows trying to get in there to him. And just couldn’t get to them,” he said.
“He actually went in and told them to follow him,” Chief Blackledge told The New York Times. “He was going to lead them outside, and when he got to the door and outside, the children were not with him … I can only guess what they thought, what they were doing.”
West Browning, Jake Presley’s childhood friend, told WLBT3 that he cannot imagine how he will live in the aftermath.
“It’s just horrible," Browning said. ”I can’t imagine ... and just being left alive to deal with all losses. I couldn’t do it. What he’s left with, you know?”
James Williams, another close family friend, told the Clarion Ledger that the couple and their children had lived in the rental house, located at 2211 Old Vicksburg Road in east Clinton, not far from Jackson, "every bit of 10 to 12 years." The husband and wife, he said, both embraced family life.
"She was a very loving mother, always doing things for the kids," Williams said, and Jake "lived for those kids."
"He was always doing stuff with them, out bicycling with them," Williams said of Jake Presley.
Rob Logan, Jake Presley's long-time friend and cycling mate, also told the Clarion Ledger that he was shocked by the tragedy.
He said he had fun riding with the doting father and his boys. Last year, he said, when he retired Jake Presley took over the Clinton Social Riders for him.
"I can’t imagine what Jake is going to be going through. His family was everything to him, just the way he was with the kids," Logan said. "He was just a kind, loving father."
Josh Horner, the family’s pastor at Raymond Road Baptist Church, said:
“This is a tragic loss that we’ve had as a church family and we’ve never seen anything like it before so we’re going to gather around and we’re going to worship the Lord and we’re going to grieve together.”
“The words that keep coming to my mind is to trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding and in all of my ways acknowledge Him and let Him direct our paths … God is our comfort. God is our strength and He’s a present help in times of trouble and He’s close to the broken-hearted.
“I know that they have many friends and family who are out there who are trying to process this information just like we are. We say the same thing to them that our hope is found in Jesus,” he added.
Canton Public Schools said Jake Presley’s wife, Brittany, was a 2nd grade teacher at Reuben. B. Myers Canton School of Arts and Sciences where one of her sons was a pre-K student.
Chief Blackledge told the Times that the cause of the fire is under investigation “but we feel like it’s going to be electrical in nature.”
A GoFundMe campaign is now seeking to raise $100,000 to help Jake Presley fund the funerals for his family as well as his medical expenses.
“Jake will have the expense of 7 funerals and burials, incurring hospital bills, the total loss of his property and all of his belongings. They did not have any savings for emergencies and anything you can give will be a blessing,” wrote organizers of the campaign, Lisa and Lindsey Williams.