MORA, MINN. - Almost exactly three years after losing their mother and longtime companion to illness, a sixth-grader and his father were among three people who died Thursday morning in a fire that tore through a small apartment building in this town 70 miles north of the Twin Cities.

A fourth person was airlifted to a metro-area hospital with critical injuries, authorities said. Friends and family members identified the dead as Michael Caley, 48, his son, Coleman, and their neighbor Shirley Norling, 68. Three others were evacuated from the four-unit apartment building while smoke alarms blared about 7:15 a.m.

The fire, whose cause remains under investigation, wrenched the tight-knit community of 3,500 people.

"It's a small town, and everybody kind of knows everybody," said Jeff Gorham, a retired 27-year member of Mora's volunteer department. "The worst part about this one is that there's a kid involved."

Bob Bohachek, a pastor who lives near the now-charred gray apartment building on Westwood Circle, said he had befriended Coleman as he bicycled around the neighborhood.

"It's tragic ... boy, this is going to be a sad, sad Christmas," Bohachek said. "One night, people are fine, then the next night. ... It turns your stomach. You feel so bad, you grieve, and it just tears you up."

Caley's longtime companion and Coleman's mother, Gloria Jean Krein, died on Dec. 9, 2008. Michael also had been raising their 13-year-old daughter.

He was an active member of the Mora Lions Club, helped with the local soup kitchen, attended his kids' activities and took them swimming, fishing, to cookouts and to friends' houses.

"He was firm, but he was very loving to his children," said Bill Grunow, a close friend. He was raising the kids on his own, and he worked hard at it, Grunow said.

Mora schools Superintendent Craig Schultz said he was notified before noon that a sixth-grader at Trailview School had died in the fire. Counselors and clergy were expected to visit the school on Friday to provide support to students and teachers.

A tragedy involving a child "you can't prepare yourself for," Schultz said.

At Emmanuel Baptist Church, where Krein's funeral was held three Decembers ago, kids ranging in age from pre-school to sixth grade, some dressed as angels and shepherds and some playing in a bell choir, were conducting a semi-dress rehearsal for the upcoming Christmas program Thursday as parents hugged in the lobby. Coleman had participated in previous Christmas shows at the church.

Gary Norling said his wife of 45 years was preparing to leave their upstairs apartment for work when the fire broke out. Everything was fine when he left just after 7 a.m. for his janitorial job at the American Legion in Pine City, he said. He and others were struggling to understand how the fire could have become so deadly in such a short time. "The shock hasn't hit yet," Norling said.

Authorities told him that his wife died of smoke inhalation.

Shirley Norling had worked in the cafeteria of a care facility in Cambridge and was a longtime member of St. Mary's Catholic Church. In addition to her husband, she is survived by two adult sons and four grandsons.

"She was a very, very kindhearted woman," said her son Mike Norling.

Rita Clasemann, the parish life coordinator at St. Mary's, visited with Gary Norling on Thursday.

"Her family was certainly the center of her life," Clasemann said.

Clasemann said she will also be visiting the school tomorrow. "The biggest thing you can do is listen," she said. "It's going to hurt a lot."

Michael Caley worked nights at Plastech Corp., an injection molding firm in Rush City, his friends said.

As the news of the three deaths rippled down to the Twin Cities, relatives responded with heartache and shock.

"I felt like I was going to stroke out when my little sister called this morning and said my dad and little brother were killed in a house fire," said Joe Caley, 24, who lives in northeast Minneapolis. He said his father was always deeply involved in the community as a Lions Club member.

"It's a sad day," Kanabec County Sheriff Steve Schulz said. "I feel really bad for the families."

Staff writer Curt Brown contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102.