Eight members of a family were killed early today when a fire fanned by 50-mile-an-hour winds gutted their 100-year-old farmhouse near here.
"They never knew what hit them," said state fire inspector Tim May, who arrived at the scene at 3:30 a.m. as the furious flames shot 40 feet into the night sky. "They never had a chance."
The bodies of Benard Burkett Jr., 53, his wife Gladys, 52, five of their children, and a 7-year-old grandchild were found dead in the charred ruins of the old farmhouse by fire officials. There was no indication that any family member had awakened and tried to escape the flames, officials said.
The howling winds which rarely dropped below 40 m.p.h. last night and into today, whipped the flames, virtually consuming the house before any fire equipment managed to arrive at the scene, May said.
"The bodies were found on the ground floor, directly below their bedrooms," May said. "The floors collapsed (underneath their beds) and they just dropped, like that." The heat from the fire was so intense that fire fighters were unable to approach the building with ladders when they arrived, officials said.
May said the cause of the fire is still undetermined, but there was no indication that the fire was of suspicous origin.
Untouched by the falmes were two nearby trailers on the 100-acre Burkett dairy farm, which housed the only two surviving family members. Earl Burkett, 21, said he was awakened by the sound of the holocaust at about 3:30 a.m.
"But I couldn't get any closer than 25 feet away because of the heat," he said. "There was nothing I could do."
His brother, Bernard E. Burkett III, turned in a fire alarm at the same time Earl noticed the flames. Early rising dairy farmers nearby and cruising police officers also spotted the flames at about the same time and notified fire officials, May said.
May called the blaze probably the worst fire in Federick County history, and said the winds, which tore through the Washington area late yesterday and today, virtually assured that the house would be quickly gutted.
The raging winds were also responsibile for the death of a woman in Culpeper, Va., Tuesday night Lisa Dawn McArthur, 20, of 7521 N. Pine., Manassas, was killed when a tree was blown down on top of the van in which she was a passenger, Virginia State Police reported.
Her husband, Stewart, 25, is in satisfactory condition with a neck injury in Cukpeper Memorial Hospital, police said. The incident occured 6 miles south of Culpeper near the intersection of Rte. 29 and Rte. 609, officials reported.
No other cases of wind-related injured were reported by area hospitals yesterday.
Also killed were the Burkett children, Michael, 16, 14-year-old twins, Gary and Jerry, Charles 11, Joan, 29, and her son, David, 7.
This morning neighbors gathered in small knots in front of the burned-out farmhouse, leaning into the wind and talking among themselves.
About a dozen dairy farmers were in the Burkett barn to help with the morning milking after word of the family's death was relayed by telephone calls and word-of-mouth early today.
"He was a tough guy, said his neighbor, Walter Martz, 53, whose own dairy herd rested on a hillside overlooking the Burkett farm. His father was a tenant farmer but (Bernard) later went to Baltimore drove a garbage truck; and hauled produce off the docks to make money."
Twenty years ago, Burkett and his wife moved back home and bought their farm, which today is mortgage free, Martz said.
"But he was talking of selling and buying a gas station," Martz said "As is so often the case around here the kids grew up and didn't want to be farmers."
Last year Burkett sold all of his 80 dairy cows, Martz recalled. "Farming is a seven-day-a-week business, and he needed some time off. When he felt better, he bought 40 new cow and started over."
The National Weather Service reported yesterday that the winds were expected to diminish Thursday with freeze warnings in effect for the mid-Atlantic states.