SIOUX FALLS, S.D. » An early-morning fire engulfed a rural home in South Dakota where a couple and their four children lived, leaving multiple people dead, authorities said Thursday.
Charles Mix County Sheriff Randy Thaler said firefighters were called around 5:30 a.m. to the home of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis, about 3 miles south of Platte, about 110 miles west of Sioux Falls. A preliminary investigation revealed "multiple victims," but they are not yet identifiable, Thaler said.
Platte-Geddes School District Superintendent Joel Bailey said local agencies informed him Thursday morning that the couple and the children, who attended school in the small district, died in the fire. He said the students killed were Kailey, a third-grader; Jaeci, a fifth-grader; Connor, an eighth-grader; and Michael, a high school sophomore.
Scott and Nicole Westerhuis worked for Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, a Platte-based education organization that provides speech, language and hearing services to several area school districts. Scott Westerhuis served as the organization’s business manager for about 15 or 16 years, and Nicole Westerhuis served as assistant business manager for about 8 years, said Dan Guericke, the cooperative’s director. Both were great people and highly valued employees, he said.
The couple attended Northern State University in Aberdeen and returned to Platte sometime after graduation.
"Scott and his wife grew up here," Guericke said. "Their parents were here. They came back to raise their children here."
All Platte-Geddes students were dismissed after school officials learned of the tragedy. The state Department of Education reports the district had 467 students enrolled as of fall 2014.
Bailey said school counselors from the district and surrounding areas, along with local church youth group leaders, were on hand at the schools to help students, teachers and staff with their grief.
"I can be proud of the way everybody came together and supported the students and faculty," Bailey said.
Community members were planning a special gathering for the family Thursday night at a church.
Guericke said the Westerhuises were an extremely solid, close-knit family.
"They were involved with coaching their teams, worked with their youth groups at church," he said. "They were very involved with their children."
Thaler said the South Dakota Fire Marshal, South Dakota Department of Criminal Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Platte fire and police departments are assisting with the investigation into the blaze.