Investigators said an electrical short circuit in the attic was the likely cause of the fire, which happened in the same Jacksonville community where six children died in a fire over the summer.
The fire occurred about 6:30 a.m. at a ranch-style home on South Glenn Court in the Lauradale Subdivision off Gum Branch Road. Three girls, ages 10, 4 and 2, were killed.
The girls' father, identified as Rodney Hurst, was taken to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill in critical condition. A spokesperson at the center said Hurst suffered second- and third-degree burns over about 60 percent of his body.
The girls' mother, Elizabeth Hurst, their 12-year-old brother and a 7-month-old infant were taken to a local hospital for smoke inhalation. The 12-year-old was reportedly out of the hospital Friday night.
The 12-year-old had left for school only a few minutes before the fire was reported. He rushed back from the bus stop to help, as did several other children, but fire chief Raymond Pfeil said the heat and smoke thwarted any rescue attempts.
"The fire was just too hot for us to even start to go in," Pfeil said. "We had to extinguish most of it before we could go inside."
Once firefighters got inside, they found the three girls, two in a hall and one in a bedroom.
"It was really scary because none of the kids were out of the house yet," neighbor Trevor Duncan said. "We couldn't get back there because the smoke and the fire wouldn't let us through the house to get to them."
Investigators believe the fire started in the attic, and the attic collapsed on the house before the girls could get out.
It was the fourth house fire in Jacksonville in less than two weeks in which the family was home, and the second tragic fire in Jacksonville this year involving children.
Mary Alice Turner lost five of her children and a grandchild in
a mobile home fire last summer.
Turner and five children who survived now live in a home donated by a Jacksonville businessman.
Turner still faces legal trouble. A warrant is out for her arrest in Johnston County because she failed to appear in court on shoplifting charges.
Onslow County sheriff's deputy Jeff Sanders, one of the first deputies to arrive at the Turner fire July 9, was one of the first to arrive at Friday's fire.
Deputies arrived on the scene Friday within five minutes and found the house engulfed in flames. R.C. Hurst was lying in the yard badly burned and exhausted from trying to save his family.
Elizabeth Hurst reportedly made several attempts to save the three victims before firefighters arrived but was thwarted by the fire and smoke. She and the infant were able to escape to safety through a bedroom window.
"She was standing out in the court yelling for help," said a young girl who lived in the neighborhood and alerted the 12-year-old about the fire. "I ran down to the bus stop, and I told the oldest one that his house was on fire.
"I felt really bad," the girl said. "I felt like I wanted to do something about it. But I couldn't."