"I thank God that He counted my family worthy to suffer," Sammy Pittman said told reporters Wednesday morning "That's the only way I can look at it. It's the only way I choose to look at it."
Pittman, a minister at House of Prayer in Turkey, N.C., was at work on the morning of Feb. 23 when an electrical short in a refrigerator sparked the fire at his home in Verona, south of Jacksonville.
His 12-year-old daughter, Tabitha, and two sons, Elijah, 9, and Gabriel, 7, were found dead in the living room from smoke inhalation.
His five other children – Samantha, 16, twins Adrienne and Gabrielle, 14, Hannah, 10, and Johnathan, 4 – and his wife, Johnetta, got out of the house.
"I cried until I threw up, and I've cried since then," Pittman said. "But I have one way to look at it, so I told (my family) to stay strong and God will show us what we need to do."
Pittman said his wife, asleep on the first floor, awoke to a crackling sound from the kitchen and told the four children on the first floor to get out of the house.
Then, Pittman said, she raced toward the second floor, where the rest of the children were sleeping, only to find the stairs covered in flames.
"She was able to yell at them and wake them up, but they came out of the bedroom to find out that they could not go downstairs," he said. "She then ran outside to the window, because she told them they had to jump."
They jumped to safety, but for some reason, he said, the children on the first floor hadn't come out yet.
Johnetta Pittman forced open the front door, and a swirling inferno forced her to the ground.
"When she did that, she couldn't raise her head. Her hair was blowing. She couldn't see," her husband said. "The smoke had thickened, and she was able to yell for the children on the floor."
That's when Hannah appeared from the smoke. Her mother dragged her to safety and then returned for the others -- Tabitha, Elijah and Gabriel.
They never appeared.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Tabitha would not leave her brothers," Pittman said. "She was a server, very humble, and you didn’t have to tell her to do things like clean her room or anything like that. She just stood out. She loved people and there's no doubt in my mind that she would leave her brothers."
Investigators say they did not find smoke detectors in the rental home, but Pittman's family told the Onslow County Sheriff's Office that the home did have smoke detectors and that he doesn't hold the owner responsible.
Members of the community are now building the Pittmans a new home in Richlands, and Pittman said he is hoping to take his family away on a vacation soon.
He teared up at times Wednesday but was happy to report that Hannah, who was burned on her face, arms and back doesn't have to wear bandages anymore.
He said he also has to remind the twins to keep wearing their back braces for injuries they suffered after they jumped from the second floor.
Samantha and Johnathan were not hurt.
Despite his loss, Pittman said, he still considers himself a father of eight, thinking of the three children he lost as simply being with God.
"I never lost children in a fire, so I take it one day at a time, but I can say that it's been the word of God that has gotten me through," he said. "I have not questioned God. I do not ask Him why this happened, and I do not charge Him foolishly."
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