KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (AP) _ Residents left flowers and notes on the blackened spot of pavement where the bodies of three murdered children were found in a burning van. Their father committed suicide nearby.

Even Police Chief James Gradeless, a 20-year law enforcement veteran who also served with Special Forces in Vietnam, was shaken by what he saw this weekend.

``It's not a Kill Devil Hills story,'' Gradeless said Monday. ``It's an American story. It bothers all of our consciences because somewhere, some place, society has failed to prevent this kind of thing from happening.''

Douglas J. Mont, 35, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the woods about 150 feet from the First Flight airport parking lot where the van was found early Sunday.

The children were shot in the head with the same gun, they did not die in the fire, Gradeless said.

The children's mother, Nancy Mont, had reported them missing from their home in Seaford, Del., after they did not return from visiting their father. Cpl. Preston Lewis, spokesman for the Delaware State Police, confirmed the identities of the children as Catrina J. Mont, 9; Daniel Preston Mont, 6; and Theresa Lynn Mont, 4.

On Monday morning, a green basket of silk flowers had been placed at the scene of the fire with a sign saying ``three little angels from Alex, Sam and Ray.'' The van and the bodies had been removed.

Later, Sheila Scheck, who lives near the airport in Collington, visited the scene and returned with flowers. ``May God Bless These Children,'' her arrangement said.

The father ``deserved a lot worse than he did to himself. I know that for sure,'' she said. ``It was so close here and I've got a child of my own. I guess that's why it bothered me so much.''

Temperatures were so high in the van that metal melted in places. Even the license plate was destroyed. Only the frame remains in the police garage where it's being stored.

``It's just sad,'' Gradeless said, choking up with tears. ``I tell you, when this is all over, I'm going to need some debriefing myself.''

Almost as sad were the calls the police department received from people across the country whose children are missing.

``These things are always tragedies,'' said Dr. Page Hudson, state medical examiner in Greenville. ``I see parents destroy themselves and their children when things like this happen. Children and custody of children are always at the center of things like this.''

Ms. Mont reported the children missing Saturday evening, after they did not return from a regular visitation with their father, a bank employee. The couple has been separated since August.

The fire in the Ford Aerostar was spotted about 1:30 a.m. Sunday by a passer-by living in a subdivision near the airport, said Dare County spokesman Charlie Hartig. Firefighters did not discover the children inside until after they had extinguished the flames.

Police searching for clues after the fire found a man lying on his stomach in the woods. When they asked him to put his hands up, he raised his right hand in the air, raised a handgun to his ear with his left hand and shot himself, Gradeless said. He was later identified as Mont.

The last murder in Kill Devil Hills, a drug-related arson death, occurred in 1978, Gradeless said. The town, a short distance from Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers made aviation history, has a population of 4,200.