SHERRARD, Ill. — As the initial shock subsided Thursday, this Mercer County community began rallying around the victims and survivors of the fatal fire that killed a woman and four girls.
One of many change jars for the victims sat near the cash register at Tiger’s Den Cafe in Sherrard. Owner Cookie Dean knew Anna Viager and her children well.
The rural community that encompasses nearby unincorporated Cable is tight-knit, with neighbors, friends and friends-of-friends ready to help, Dean said.
“In Sherrard, it is not just one family,” she said. “It is the whole town of Sherrard. We stick together.”
Anna Viager, 38, and her daughter, Breanna, 8, along with Jessica Harker, 11, Holli Harker, 13, and Cassandra Turner, 15, were killed in the fire at the Viager home at 1385 300th St. Jessica, Holli and Cassandra were at the house for a sleepover.
Wayne Viager and sons Dekoteh and Allen, ages unavailable, escaped. Wayne Viager tried to save the others but was turned back by the fire’s intensity. He was injured in the fire, but the extent of his injuries aren’t known. The double-wide mobile home was destroyed.
Dean described the Viager children as polite and considerate. Anna Viager recently had undergone breast cancer surgery.
“You never knew she had been through that,” she said.
Wayne Viager and his sons were always working on something or helping someone, Dean said.
She met the Viagers when she served on the Sherrard Library Board, saying the family’s entertainment was the library, whether it was books or movies.
The library was one of the first to call for donations for the Viagers, posted Wednesday on its Facebook page. On Thursday, donations of clothing no longer were being requested, library director Dodie Wessel said.
“It has been overwhelming,” Wessel said. “We’ve gotten emails and phone calls wondering what they can do.”
Wayne Viager’s boss at the Mercer County Highway Department described him as a hard worker who was the first one to arrive and last to leave. That ethic carried over away from the job, too.
“He’d do about anything for anybody,” said highway department foreman Lee Henry. If someone needed help, Viager was available.
“Everyone is going to do that for them now,” he said.
Sherrard Mayor Terry Ayers said he would like to see the media glare fade so the families could grieve.
“This is the worst thing anyone could imagine happening to anyone, and it happened in our own backyard,” he said. “It is a sad thing, but I know there are thousands of prayers going out, and I know (the families) could use a million times more.”
The sign at Sherrard’s city park reflected the community’s sentiment, reading, “Our deepest sympathies to the families for their loved ones lost in this tragedy.”
All of the children attended Sherrard schools. The district’s school counselors, local pastors, as well as counselors from the Rockridge and Orion school districts will be on hand Monday when students return from spring break, school board president Tim Arbet said.
“It is just a horrible tragedy,” Arbet said. “Your heart hurts every time you think about it.
“It is difficult to find a kid who wouldn’t be affected by this.”
Along with change jars, such as the one at the cafe, two accounts helping the Viager and Harker families have been created at 1st Community Bank in Sherrard.
Autopsies were done Thursday in Bloomington, Ill., Mercer County Sheriff Tom Thompson said. He declined to say whether the structure had smoke detectors as it is part of the investigation. No cause has been released.
“We’ll disclose all that once we’re finished,” he said not wanting to put a timeline on the investigation.
EARLIER REPORT: SHERRARD, Ill. — Neighbors were startled awake Wednesday by an early morning fire that killed a woman and four girls in a double-wide mobile home as a man and two boys escaped.
The boys’ father went in after his wife, his daughter and three girls who were there for a sleepover, but he was turned back by the intensity of the fire. He was taken to an Iowa City hospital for treatment.
The man’s condition was unavailable Wednesday night. A neighbor said the boys were with their grandparents.
Noises awoke Vivian Rourke, who rushed outside to see the dwelling across the street in flames. She yelled to firefighters to ask whether everyone was out and was told to go back inside her house. The fire was reported about 1 a.m.
“They were like family,” Rourke said of the neighbors. “It is not a good day. We are a close, tight-knit community.”
The Mercer County Sheriff’s Department did not release the identities of the victims Wednesday. The Illinois State Fire Marshal assisted with the investigation, and a cause has not yet been released.
“The house was near a heavy wood burner, but the fire marshal hasn’t said the cause yet,” Mercer County Coroner Ron McNall said.
The double-wide mobile home, located about three miles south of Sherrard in Mercer County, was in a cluster of homes near the crest of a hill at 1385 300th St., Sherrard. Cut wood and children’s play equipment surrounded the burned rubble.
Rourke still was visibly shaken hours after the fire was extinguished, recalling how she had baby-sat for the family. She and her husband, Steve, have lived across from the family for about a decade.
The bad news traveled fast.
Nancy Moline of Sherrard, like Rourke, said her phone kept ringing and ringing as news of the fire spread. She and her grandson and his friend were eating lunch at The Office bar in Sherrard. She said everyone knows everyone else in a small community such as Sherrard and the nearby unincorporated community of Cable.
“It is awful. It is terrible,” she said. “I’ve had so many phone calls today, I had to get out of the house.”
Garet Egel, the principal at Sherrard Senior High School, said district administrators were on the phone trying to put together a plan to bring in counselors for their students on Monday. School is closed this week for spring break.
Egel said at least one of the children killed was a student at the high school. He declined to identify the student because he said the name has not been formally released by authorities.
The other children who died also attended schools in the Sherrard district.
“This is going to impact our entire district with the kids that were involved at different buildings,” he said. “We want to make sure we provide support for students to cope with this.”
Egel said district officials will talk this weekend about what they can do to support families affected by Wednesday’s fire.
The family belongs to Cable Community Church, Moline said. Church pastor Clint Ziemer could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
“It is going to be a really rough Easter,” Moline added.
Moline said the church will likely set up an account to assist the family.
The fire left the home a pile of rubble. McNall said heavy equipment was brought in to move the metal framework while it was still dark. Fearing that the bodies might be disturbed, further work was stopped until daylight, when rescuers were able to recover the bodies after moving debris by hand.
The American Red Cross of the Quad-Cities Area is assisting the family.
(Times reporter Tara Becker contributed to this story.)