Early morning fire claims 3 Nikiski residents

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2000

The fire broke out shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday morning at the trailer house occupied by the Downie family at Space 26 Blue Jay Trailer Court, 44220 Kenai Spur Highway.

Richard Downie, 39, and two sons, Daniel, 11, and Robert, 5, perished in the blaze, which was survived by wife and mother Corrine Downie, 33.

"They had come here to make a new start," said neighbor Tami Vincent, who worked with other neighbors Thursday afternoon to secure what remained of the home

"They hadn't lived here very long," she said, adding she had heard that Downie had recently found employment. "It's just so sad."

Neighbor Bryan Hinkley made the emergency call.

"(Corrine) was outside, screaming, 'Help us,'" he said.

Dave Robertson, battalion chief for Nikiski Fire Department, was on duty when the call came in at 2:05 a.m.

"We're less than a mile away," he said, referring to Station No. 1's proximity to the trailer court. "We were on location within three minutes. By the time we got there the home was fully involved."

An Alaska State Troopers press release said initial investigation revealed that after having been awakened by smoke alarms, Corrine and Richard Downie were able to exit the home safely. Richard Downie then reportedly returned to remove their two children.

Fire engines from Nikiski and Kenai Fire departments responded. Nikiski also had two tankers, a rescue truck and two ambulances on the scene. A total of 21 emergency personnel, including two from Kenai, worked quickly.

While flames consumed the front of the residence, firefighters fought their way to the back door. Hampered by snow, response personnel broke through the back door using axes, according to Robertson.

Both Downie and his 5-year-old son were found in the back of the trailer. Although that part of the home was untouched by flames, Robertson reported it was filled with smoke and intense heat.

The 11-year-old son was found closer to the front of the residence.

Robertson said emergency response personnel finally cleared the scene at approximately 6 a.m.

State Fire Marshal Carol Olson MacDonald was notified of the fire at her Anchorage home at 3 a.m. Thursday morning. By 8 a.m. she had arrived at the residence and had begun her investigation.

By midafternoon, Wilkinson said the possibility of foul play had been eliminated.

"(The investigation) has determined the fire began in the living room next to the couch," said Wilkinson. "It was either electrical or smoking material related."

He also said that contrary to earlier reports, smoke alarms had failed to work.

"There was no escape route from the house because the back door was buried in snow," Wilkinson said. "And fire made passage out through the front door difficult.

"It's one of those terrible things where you have to make sure you have an additional escape route and that your family knows about it and practices it."

The investigation is continuing.

"This is one of those things that will take several days to piece together," said firefighter Robertson.

North Star Elementary School, where Daniel had been a sixth-grader, initiated its critical incident plan early Thursday morning in response to the loss of this student and friend.

"Everyone is talking about what a wonderful influence he was," said Donna Peterson, superintendent of schools for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. "Everything we're hearing is what a wonderful child he was."

Peterson, who was on hand at North Star on Thursday, sent a letter home to parents of the school's students, providing information on the incident and notifying families of services available to help both students and parents cope with the loss.

"Please know that help is available at the school should you or your child need assistance," the letter read, listing the school psychologist and the school nurse as contacts.

Less than a mile away, the sign in front of Nikiski Fire Department's Station No. 1 displayed a haunting message.

"Know two ways out."

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