Playing With Fire Part One
Washington County is the home of Beaverton, one of the largest cities in Oregon. It is also one of the largest agricultural counties in the state. Many Mexican immigrants settle in Washington County, because of the agricultural jobs that are available. Natives of the Mexican state Michoacan are particularly attracted to Oregon. Michoacanos stick together and often cluster together in neighborhoods and apartment complexes.
One such apartment building was the Oakwood Park Apartments; many of the tenants were Mexican immigrants from Michoacan. Oakwood Park was the type of building that catered to working (or unemployed) families and immigrants. In June, 1996 at the height of the agricultural season, many of the apartments in Oakwood Park were overcrowded with visiting friends and family members.
On the night of June 28, 1996 the residents of Oakwood Park were awakened by cries of “Fire! Fuego!” Crystal Hopper, 22, had just gone to sleep and was awakened because her room was so hot shortly after 1 a.m. “My boyfriend looked out the window and said, ‘Who the hell is barbecuing at one in the morning?’” Hopper said. “Then he screamed, ‘Fire! Fire!’”
The building had no sprinkler system, although building codes in Aloha, where it was located required that multifamily dwellings of three or more stories had to have a fire sprinkler installed. Many builders got around this law, like they did with Oakwood Park. The three-story apartment building had an earthen berm erected around the first floor, which was renamed the basement. The building was then described as a two story building and was not required to have a spriknkler system.
Fire investigators found that only one of the 12 apartments in the building had working smoke alarms. The hand-pull fire alarms, located in the stairwell, were impossible for tenants to reach, because the fire was started in the stairwell. Afterward investigators found that nothing happened when the alarms were pulled. Vinicio Luna, 25, found out about the fire alarms the hard way. Running from the third floor apartment of his friends, the Aguilars, he pulled the fire alarm. Nothing happened.
A dozen people were injured with burns and broken bones from jumping out of windows and off of balconies. The fire started on the second floor and engulfed the stairwell in flames in seconds. “Leaving the apartments on that upper level would have been like going down a chimney, like opening the door on the side of a chimney and trying to go in,” said Tim Birr, spokesman for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
Patricio Aquilar, who lived in apartment 36, on the third floor, awoke to a smoke filled bedroom. His 16-year-old wife, Francisca, clutched their 3 month-old baby and ran in panicked circles, screaming, “We’re going to die.” Aguilar ran to his front door, but when he opened it flames threatened his apartment. He slammed the door and ran back to the bedroom.
Araceli and Nicolas Chavez, friends staying with Aguilar jumped from the bedroom window. Both were injured and their 3 month old daughter, Selena died from her injuries. Patricio took his little girl from his wife and stood at the window, trying to decide what to do. Patricio’s childhood friend, Alberto Gaona, who had just escaped from his own apartment stood below the window and yelled that he would catch the child.
Patricio looked behind him, but could not see his wife in the smoke filled room. With a prayer he threw his daughter from the window. His friend, also with a prayer, caught the infant who survived. Patricio went back for his wife, but was unable to find her before jumping from the third floor with third degree burns on his hands and arms. Francisca Aguilar died in the blaze. Later in the hospital, Patricio Aguilar said, “I don't feel any physical pain. I just want to die.”
Next door in apartment 34, Jeremais Aguilar, 37, and his wife Virginia, 26, did not awaken in time. Although three guests were able to escape from this apartment, Jeremais, Virginia and their four children, Jacqueline, 8, Karen, 8, Augustin, 7, and Patricia, 5, were killed in the fire.
Firefighters from Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue(TVFR), the largest fire district in the state, described a hellish scene. Doug Snader, a firefighter who arrived on the scene with the first two firetrucks, said, “You couldn’t stand up because the heat was so intense.” He said that he had to keep moving as the fire burned through his shoes and the sleeves of his coat. When the protective mask he wore began to warp from the heat he was forced back.
The neighborhood was low income working class. It had suffered damage in February 1996 during flooding as the ice from a winter storm melted. The fire hydrants had not been inspected since 1991. One hydrant burst as firefighters tried to connect hoses to it. Spokesmen for TVFR said that lack of water was never a problem so the burst fire hydrant was irrelevant.
The burst fire hydrant, intense flames and people jumping from the building made the fire extremely traumatic, especially for the children who lived in the building. The death of four elementary school age children increased the traumatic impact.
Fire investigators said that the fire was arson, they found accelerant at one spot in the stairwell. They also said it was the worst possible kind of arson, because it was positioned perfectly to turn the stairwell into a firestorm and the timing was sure to catch people asleep in the building. They offered a $5,000 reward for information on the arsonist.
Rumors swirled around the community. Some said that a man was seen fleeing the scene in tears right before the fire broke out. They speculated that he was getting revenge for some slight and the fire had gotten out of control. Sometimes tenants, evicted from the building, had slashed tires or sprayed graffitti. It was not unthinkable that someone like that might have set a fire. Some of the young mothers in the building said that the dryer in the laundry room on the first floor had been smoking for days and may have caught fire.
Michael Eastlick, the manager of the Oakwood Park Apartments, was too overcome with emotion to talk about the fire. He said that the Aguilars were good people. Jeremais was the building’s mechanic. Anyone with car problems went to Jeremais, he would help. Virginia ran a day care center in her apartment and was the substitute mother for most of the children who lived there.
Eastlick didn’t think of it right away, but soon he would remember that there had been problems with fire in the building. In the last year an 11 year old boy, Ray DeFord, who lived with his mother and father in apartment 25, had been caught setting fires at least four times. None of these incidents was ever reported to the police.
Ray DeFord had a reputation as a bully and an outcast at Oakwood Park. His parents, Tom Martin, 46, and Carolyn DeFord, 49, were disabled and eaked out their social security checks by collecting cans and bottles from the garbage. They were looked down on by other tenants in the building and Ray was thought to be a trouble-maker.
DeFord, considered a hero by his family because he woke them and guided them out of their bedroom window during the fire, soon called attention to himself. First he bragged to the police that he knew about the fire. Then he pulled the fire alarm in the hallway of the Ramada Inn where survivors of the fire were staying.
On July 2, 1996 Ray Martin DeFord, 11, confessed to starting the fire. He said he was “experimenting” with matches and alcohol in the stairwell, when he accidentally set some newspapers on fire. When he lost control of the flames he woke his parents and guided them to safety. Ray DeFord would be charged with negligent homicide. He would become Oregon’s youngest convicted murderer.
Coming Soon: Playing with Fire part two: Ray