Tearful neighbours have described the harrowing moment a fire ripped through a family home in the middle of the night, killing four young children.
A fifth child and two adults are being treated in hospital amid reports a man jumped from a window clutching the youngster as the blaze took hold.
The children who died were named locally as Riley, Keegan, Tilly and Olly – aged between three and eight.
Neighbours said the siblings’ two-year-old brother Jack had survived the blaze along with his mother, Natalie Unitt, and her partner Chris.
Chief Inspector John Owen, of Staffordshire Police, described the incident at 2.40am on Tuesday as “absolutely heartbreaking”.
Relatives of the children who died were thought to be among a group of four people who visited a cordon in nearby Whittingham Drive to lay down tributes.
A hand-written note attached to a cuddly toy read: “RIP Babes xx life is so so cruel. All our thoughts are with the family at this very sad time.”
One note read: “Will be dearly missed, love Uncle Dave and Auntie Lou Lou”, while another added: “To my lovely grandkids I will always miss you. Love you always”.
A nearby resident described how a sheet of flames engulfed an upstairs window at the semi-detached property on Sycamore Lane in the Highfields area of Stafford.
The witness, who asked not to be named, told the Press Association news agency at the scene: “We heard a bang and looked out of the back window upstairs.
“At the start it was just a sheet of fire coming out of the bedroom window. It seemed to take ages for the fire brigade to arrive – it seemed like forever.
“The neighbours came out and drove their car out of the back garden and there were lots of fire engines and police.”
A friend of the children’s mother said she believed the family had lived at the end-terrace property for around six months, having moved there from another part of Stafford.
Neighbour Bryan Pickering, who lives around 40 yards from the scene of the fire, was among those who contacted the emergency services after spotting the blaze.
“We were straight on to 999,” he said.
“The flames were coming out that bad, there was nothing you could have done – even with a ladder.”
Local woman Amanda Blagg visited the scene to lay flowers and a teddy in memory of the children.
Wiping away tears, the 38-year-old told reporters: “I saw the mum every day at the school – her son is in the nursery with my son.
“I heard what had happened on the news and I just cried straight away. It’s awful.”
Another resident, who was also reluctant to give her name, said she had not realised that anyone had died in the blaze until she heard a news broadcast confirming that four children had died.
“The room at the back was completely full of flames,” the woman said.
“We just stood there with our hands over our mouths wondering what was going to happen next.
“A man and a woman got into an ambulance. They were in blankets and she had the little one in her arms.
“I’d assumed they had all got out. It’s terribly sad, almost beyond belief.”
The trio are being treated in hospital for injuries not said to be life-threatening.
Fire crews remain at the scene combing for clues as to what triggered the blaze.
Part of the roof has collapsed, with the windows smashed and the inside appearing to have been blackened by smoke.
A spokeswoman for West Midlands Ambulance Service said: “When crews arrived they found an ongoing serious house fire. Three occupants, two adults and a child, had managed to get out of the property.
“All three patients were assessed and treated on scene by ambulance staff for non-life threatening injuries before being taken to hospital for further care.
“Tragically, four children from the property were confirmed dead on scene.
“Our thoughts are with the family at this exceptionally difficult time.”
In a statement, police added: “Our thoughts are with the family, who are being supported by specialist officers at this difficult time.”