GREENVILLE - Dan Pentimone wandered through a blanket of snow around the remains of a friend's home, trying to make sense of what happened to nine people who died in a fire there. Pentimone took photos of what used to be the home of Chad and LaRae "Nikki" Watson and their nine children in the Depoy community near Greenville on Saturday before heading a few miles to the funeral for Nikki Watson and eight of her kids.
"If she needed to, she would have died for those children," said Pentimone, pastor of Christ Fellowship of Kansas City, where the Watsons attended services while living in the city about five years ago.
Relatives and friends echoed Pentimone's sentiment during a 90-minute service in a packed gymnasium at Muhlenberg County High School about 135 miles southwest of Louisville in Kentucky's western coal fields.
Before the service started, a medley of music played as photos of the Watson family scrolled across a video screen - pictures of kids dancing, mugging for the camera, hunting and fishing. Inside the gymnasium, nine closed white caskets stood in a line. Propped up behind them were large photos of Nikki Watson and her children, 15-year-old Madison Watson, 14-year-old Kaitlyn Watson, 13-year-old Morgan Watson, 9-year-old Emily Watson, 8-year-old Samuel Watson, 6-year-old Raegan Watson and 4-year-old twin brothers Mark and Nathaniel Watson.
"It doesn't look real, said Lisa West of Greenville, who attended the funeral.
The father, 36-year-old Chad Watson, and 11-year-old Kylie Watson, escaped the blaze and were at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Speakers at the funeral recalled a family that loved each other despite the occasional disagreement, one that studied the Bible and shared in almost everything. While investigators have said a combustible object fell on an electric heater to trigger the blaze, inside the gym family and friends asked the bigger question about how nine people who had accepted God could be taken away.
Tim Burden, pastor at Cavalry Baptist Church in Greenville where the family attended services, said the family may be gone, but they were now at peace. And, while it may be hard to accept that so many children died, their memories can live on, Burden said.
"Those children are precious," Burden said. "We knew they passed, but let's don't forget they also lived."
Evidence of those lives remained at the family home Saturday, just a few miles from Oak Grove Baptist Church and Cemetery where the burials took place. Beyond the charred house, a swing set remained covered in snow in the backyard, two propane grills stood outside the house and flowers and stuffed animals formed a makeshift memorial in front of the house.
Linda Gardner of Greenville, who attended New Hebron Baptist Church in Dunmore when Chad Watson preached there in the mid-1990s, recalled the family as "charming" and devoted to the children.
"I know she was a good mother. She wanted those children," Gardner said before going into the funeral service. "I just loved them. Nikki was just the best person in the world."
Chad Watson's father, Willard Watson, addressed those attending the funeral in a pre-recorded statement played at the start of the service. Willard Watson thanked the staff at Vanderbilt for taking care of the two survivors. He also thanked the first responders who helped his son and tried to help the rest of the family. Chad Watson told first responders his wife and other children were still inside, but the rescuers couldn't get into the house.
"I know they had to feel so desperate," Willard Watson said.
The fire was the third that has killed five or more people in Kentucky in a little over a year. Last January, four children under 6 and their father were killed in a blaze near Pikeville in eastern Kentucky that also severely burned their mother. Authorities said the home lacked a smoke detector.
In March, a fire at a home in the southern Kentucky community of Gray killed a young couple and five children.
As Pentimone left the home, he recalled the financial struggles the Watson's had, but also how the family seemed determined to persevere through whatever came their way.
"It never seemed to work out long-term for them," Pentimone said.
"But, they loved each other. I know that."