A small Vermont community is in mourning a day after a predawn fire ripped through a single-family home, killing two small boys inside.
The blaze, which is not believed to be suspicious, destroyed a North Hero home just after 1 a.m., Vermont State Police said, leaving two young parents childless.
Desiree and Mason Maltais, both 30, were able to escape the flames, but could not get to their children, according to State Police and family friends.
The names and ages of the boys have not been publicly announced, pending autopsies, Vermont State Police said. An investigation is ongoing.
“It’s everyone’s worst nightmare to lose your children,” said Walter Blasberg, owner of The North Hero House Inn & Restaurant, where Desiree Maltais worked as an innkeeper and where the boys were a frequent sight.
“We all knew the children,” Blasberg said in a phone interview Sunday afternoon, adding that the Maltaises’ older son was about 5 and the younger boy was just shy of a year old. “They were a big part of life at the inn.”
Grief counselors were scheduled to be at North Hero Elementary School Sunday afternoon to help parents explain to their children what happened, Vermont State Police said.
In a statement e-mailed to the Globe Sunday night, the Champlain Islands Unified Union Board of School Directors said the board was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss experienced by the Maltais Family and the entire North Hero community.”
“The Maltais family’s devotion to community service and giving to their neighbors is the fabric of what makes Vermont and the Champlain Islands special places.”
Board chairman Gary Marckres said support services would be available through schools for students, teachers and the community.
An online fundraiser for the family had raised more than $40,000 by Sunday afternoon.
Emily Gardner, a front desk receptionist who has worked at the inn for about four years, said the children were the “sweetest boys.”
“The older one was very intelligent and loved life. He was a hoot-and-a-half, always making me laugh,” she said. “The little one was just learning how to walk . . . just a sweet little baby.”
As news of the fire trickled into the inn, where Desiree Maltais has worked for about seven years, Blasberg said, the closeknit staff was forced to pull themselves together to host an event.
“Before dinner service yesterday, everyone was in tears,” he said, recalling how the inn’s grieving staff rallied to serve a six-course meal with craft beer pairings. “We’re all just devastated by this loss.”
Blasberg said the deaths also rocked the first responders who came to the scene of the fire, particularly because Desiree and Mason Maltais both volunteer with the town’s rescue squad.
“The biggest thing is we feel helpless to do anything, because it’s such a huge loss and we can’t turn back the clock,” said Blasberg, who is hosting the Maltaises and their extended family at his home.
“There’s nothing anyone can do to ease [the parents’] pain, and that’s so hard for everybody,” he said. “It’s just one of those tragedies that even time doesn’t take away.”