SHOWELL -- With prayers and pledges of support, this rural Eastern Shore community rallied yesterday to aid a devastated family that lost two children, ages 3 and 12, in an early-morning house fire that officials said was likely caused by a portable kerosene heater.
Five other children and their parents, Jeffrey and Denine DuPont, managed to escape without serious injury the blaze that destroyed their two-story wood-frame house in Showell, about 15 miles from Ocean City.
Preliminary tests indicated that a kerosene heater in a first-floor bedroom was filled with the wrong fuel -- gasoline -- which might have increased the danger of the fire-prone heating device, said Worcester County's fire marshal, Jeffrey McMahon.
"They can be dangerous," said McMahon of the portable heaters, which are popular because they are inexpensive, but which he said cause house fires almost every winter.
McMahon said Jeffrey DuPont told investigators that he had mistakenly used the wrong fuel. "He didn't realize that's what he had done," McMahon said.
The house did not contain functioning smoke alarms, officials said.
Volunteer firefighters arrived at the fire-engulfed house about 2 a.m. yesterday and carried out a 12-year-old girl-- the DuPonts' niece, Jasmine -- who was pronounced dead at the scene, officials said. After the fire was extinguished, firefighters found the body of the DuPonts' son Joshua, 3.
The remaining family members were released later in the morning from hospitals after being treated for minor injuries.
Yesterday, as his wife and five surviving children, ages 2 through 17, were settling into two rooms at a West Ocean City motel, Jeffrey DuPont expressed gratitude for the community's support.
"People have been very good to us, but what we need is our children back and a place for us to live," DuPont said.
AnneMarie Dickerson, owner of the Francis Scott Key Motel, where the family will stay until permanent quarters can be found, said local churches, schools and businesses had been delivering clothes and personal items to the family all morning.
"It's obvious they're shell-shocked, in a complete state of despair," Dickerson said.
Late yesterday afternoon, the smell of wood smoke lingered in the working-class neighborhood near the Delaware line where Denine DuPont's family had provided the house rent-free for about two years.
Walter Showell, 56, who now lives next door, said he grew up in the ruined house. Almost everyone who lives in the community of perhaps a dozen homes is related, he said.
"It's our family home, and Denine is my niece, my younger brother's daughter," Showell said. "She and the kids had been staying in a shelter. When my brother died, she moved into the house with the kids. They lost two, but they could have lost them all. You have to just trust in the Lord when there's something like this."
The Rev. Ronald H. Soulsman of the Berlin-Ocean City Lighthouse Church of God said the DuPonts faithfully attend worship and Bible-study sessions each week.
"They know that God is their source of strength right now," said Soulsman, who visited the family yesterday morning, along with more than a dozen relatives and fellow congregants.
"There's no emotional breakdowns," said Soulsman of the DuPont parents. "They're really being strong for the children right now."
The younger children are still in shock, Soulsman said, recalling how 5-year-old Aaron DuPont asked the minister if his bicycle had made it through the fire.
But the eldest son, Reggie, 17, told Lighthouse Church youth minister Lory Twilley that he wanted to leave school and get a job to help provide for the family. Jeffrey DuPont is a dishwasher at a Berlin restaurant.
Twilley recalled 3-year-old James as a "lively kid, very on-the-go and full of energy."
She last saw Jasmine at a youth ministry function Wednesday. "She always comes in and wants a big hug," Twilley said.
"My goodness, she was a sweetheart -- always involved, always wanted to be in the middle of every fundraiser we had, every function. Always wanting to be loved."