By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Nine members of a rural Kentucky family, eight of them children, were killed and two others critically injured on Thursday in an early morning house fire sparked by an electric heater, officials said.
The father, Chad Watson, 36, a Baptist minister, suffered severe burns as he tried three times to save his wife and children, according to his cousin and fellow clergyman, Adam Brown. The house was located in rural Muhlenberg County, about 130 miles from Louisville.
The children who perished ranged in age from 4-year-old twin boys to a 15-year-old girl, according to Kentucky State Trooper Corey King. Their mother, LaRae "Nikki" Watson, 35, also died in the fire.
"The house went up pretty quick," said Brown, a pastor at Temple Baptist Church in Central City, Kentucky. He was among relatives who gathered at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, where Chad Watson and his 11-year-old daughter, Kylie, were taken after they escaped the burning house.
Investigators with the Kentucky State Police and the State Fire Marshals' Office ruled the fire accidental. An electric baseboard heater in one of the bedrooms apparently ignited some nearby combustibles, said trooper King.
Brown said Chad Watson was conscious at the scene of the fire but had to be sedated by emergency workers before being flown to Vanderbilt. He said the father suffered burns on his face and hands while his daughter was in better condition with some burns on her face and arms.
Brown said the two were expected to recover. Both were listed in critical but stable condition on Thursday afternoon, according to a hospital spokesman.
Besides their mother, LaRae, the deceased Watson children were identified as Madison, 15; Kaitlyn, 14; Morgan, 13; Emily, 9; Samuel, 8, Raegan, 6; and twins Mark and Nathaniel, 4.
The region had been experiencing unusually cold weather, according to the National Weather Service. Forecasters had also warned on Thursday of strong winds and low humidity in the area, which can be a fire hazard.
Kentucky state trooper Stu Recke said fire officials were at the scene "within minutes" after a neighbor called to report the fire at about 2 a.m. Central time (0800 GMT).
"But by that time, the house was fully engulfed," Recke said. "The father advised the first responders his whole family was in there."
King said all nine bodies had been recovered from inside the house and taken to the state medical examiner's office.
"I'm really saddened by what's taken place," said Jerry Eades, director of missions for Muhlenberg County Baptist Association, who said he was praying for the family. "It's a shocking thing that you think doesn't happen in your community, but it does."
Brown said Chad and LaRae Watson had been married for 18 years.
"They were very nice people," said Ann Humphrey, 66, a neighbor. She said she would see the children riding their bicycles on the road when the weather was warm.
Humphrey said the house, situated on about an acre and a half of land, was "older" but appeared to be in good shape.
(Reporting by Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas, Tim Ghianni in Nashville and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Editing by Gunna Dickson and Steve Gorman)