Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of one of the deadliest residential structure fires in the United States, and certainly the most devastating in East Palo Alto, according to Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. The early morning blaze took the lives of nine family members, including five children, and it resulted in changes in state fire-safety laws.
The so-called Fordham Fire remains San Mateo County's single largest, unsolved multiple homicide, Schapelhouman said on Friday. Someone used a flammable liquid to start the fire in the carport; the flames blocked the front door. Firefighters were on the scene in less than three minutes, but they encountered five cars, burglar bars, padlocked doors and three dogs. The house also didn't have a smoke alarm, Schapelhouman has said.
"This is one of those emergencies that you never forget, despite how hard you try," he recalled.
But family members said during a Saturday memorial that they want to remember more than the tragedy. There are aspects of this story they said the media, which focused on the devastation, never told: stories about a family whose door was always open to everyone; and of the unrecognized heroine who saved one life, tried to save another and sacrificed her own.
As they have every year since the fire, more than 50 relatives, friends and neighbors gathered at the rebuilt home for a memorial and celebration of life on Saturday afternoon.
At 6:09 a.m. on April 29, 1997, Menlo Park Fire Protection District responded to the blaze at 2582 Fordham St. and rescued 11 people from the small single-family home. Five children and four adults died in the blaze: Jameace Mosely, 4; Darcy Dixon, 6; Donta Price, 11; Angelika Rahiman, 6, and Anthony Taylor, 9. The adults were Sonya McNack, 20, mother of Jameace; Keneta Rivers, 22; Bonnie Thompson, 40, Keneta's mother; and Alma Campbell, 59.
Fire personnel rescued and saved Kenneth McKean, 37, and Devon McKean, 11, both of whom suffered smoke inhalation. Two others, Teresa Cotton, 28, and Verna McKean, 78, managed to escape the burning home before firefighters arrived. They sustained burns and respiratory problems, according to Schapelhouman.
Cotton died a year later, almost to the day, as a result of complications from her injuries, bringing the total fire-related deaths to 10, family members said.
Children of the next generation, many named after members of the family who died in the fire, played in a bounce house in the front yard at Saturday's remembrance. This year, the 20th anniversary, the family invited the fire department, which gave out plastic fire hats and let children explore an engine. There was face painting for the kids; white balloons festooned outside the home. Plump barbecued hot dogs roasted on the grills in the driveway, and relatives hugged and danced.
But family and friends dressed in memorial T-shirts silk-screened with the visages of those who lost their lives. They carried nine white doves to the edge of the curb and released them in memory of their loved ones. And they reflected not only on loss but on promise and hope.
"It's a long road. Twenty years is a long time. Angelika would be 27 this year," family friend Heather Starnes-Logwood (nicknamed "Sundance" by the family), said.
Cheryl McKean, whose son, 6-year-old Darcy "DJ" Dixon Jr., died in the fire, recalled that she had been out celebrating her sister's birthday when she received a call about the blaze.
"Twenty years. I can't believe it. He would be 26 years old now. I've been up and down. I've been praying a lot, trying to deal with it. I just ask the Lord to give me strength," she said.
Devon McKean, the only child to survive, is now 30 years old. He spent months in the hospital learning to talk and to walk again, his sister, Mildred McKean, said. Devon said he has no memory of the fire. He survived because he hid in a closet and covered himself with bags of clothing.
Ken McKean, who was also rescued by firefighters, said he was taken to nearby Jack Farrell Park where firefighters repeatedly revived him from smoke inhalation. McKean was unconscious and doesn't recall the fire. He "was pronounced dead three times" during the ordeal, he said he later learned. Emergency responders took him to a hospital by helicopter where he remained for about a month.
"I feel blessed to be alive. I believe in the man up above," he said.
Others who were not victims also felt lucky. Any one of 20 people could have perished in that fire, Starnes-Logwood, who left the home at 2 a.m. that morning, said.
The power of love from the house where so many died has been overshadowed by the tragedy's narrative, she said.
"I've known this family since 1986. I was adopted in, like family. We ate here every Sunday. This crowd is a reflection of who they are. This family has always been kind," she said.
Mourning isn't a straight line; it isn't about getting through the death of one person and moving on to the next, she added.
"It's not easy to mourn nine people. You had relationships that flowed into each other."
Starnes-Logwood met the McKeans when she and Kristina Thompson, nicknamed "Kokanee" by the family, worked at a camp for neighborhood kids.
"We just became godmothers to the family," Thompson said.
"Pain is no stranger to our community. But when we see this celebration we know that hope can come from pain. When we have discussions about this tragedy we have discussions about hope. These nine family members -- we're not the same because of who they were."
Verna McKean, the family matriarch whose love was all-encompassing and who escaped the fire, has since died from cancer, her son, Dana McKean, said. He now resides in the home she had rebuilt by borrowing funds, but in which she could never bear to live in after the fire.
McKean lost a stepson, two sisters, four nieces and four nephews, he said. Devon, the sole child survivor, is his son.
"It took me a long time to accept it. I just want everyone to come together and never forget," he said.
McKean especially wants people to remember and to honor one of his sisters. Bonnie Thompson has received little credit for her personal sacrifice, he said.
She had to make a choice between saving her mother or her daughter.
"She went in to save her mom (Verna McKean) and then she went back in to save her daughter. She perished in the fire (as did her daughter, Keneta Rivers). To me, she's a true hero. I don't know what I would do in that situation," he said.
McKean said his community has helped him to heal.
"Every time we get together it's very personal with me. The support we received from the community -- they bought a house for my mom when this house burned down -- the money poured in to the McKean Family Fund.
"People brought food and support after the fire. When you have something this devastating the only thing that can make you feel better is the outpouring of the community. After all, we lost nine lives. There are nine voids in our lives," he said.
The tragedy also brought about new legislation. State Senators Barbara Lee and Richard Polanco introduced SB 1405, which was signed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1998 and became effective on Jan. 1, 1999. The law prohibits the sale and installation of unopenable bars. It allows the sale only of bars and safety-release mechanisms that have been tested by a State Fire Marshal-approved laboratory.
The law was amended in 2000 to prohibit installation or maintenance of burglar bars on any residential dwelling owned or leased by a public agency unless the bars meet current state and local requirements. The amended law also requires the state fire marshal to mount a public education effort on the dangers of illegal burglar bars.
The legislation was preceded by two other laws after a similar tragedy. Five children in Oakland died in a house fire in 1995 because the burglar bars could not be opened. The two laws require, among other safety measures, that all real estate sales disclose the presence of window bars and whether the bars have quick-release mechanisms.
"Hopefully, there won't ever be another tragedy like that again," McKean said.
Immediately after the blaze the fire district launched a campaign to install and inspect hundreds of homes that had non-releasable window bars, double-keyed entry doors and no working smoke detectors. The department, the community, donors and volunteers retrofitted many of the homes to make them safer, Schapelhouman said.
The family and Menlo Park Fire Protection District are still working together to save lives. The fire district and the family will sponsor a free neighborhood smoke detector giveaway and installation event on June 17 to memorialize the fire victims, Schapelhouman said.
Three firefighters were injured in the blaze, he added. Only a handful of firefighters who fought the Fordham fire still work for the fire district; most have retired. Those who remain include Mike Shaffer, Anthony Morales, Rod Brovelli, Rex Ianson, Matt Pruitt, George Miller, Jeff Schreiber, John Shoffa and Schapelhouman.