The day before a quick-moving fire in an old trailer home killed five young sisters in Butte, the natural gas supply was turned off because of past-due bills, their grandmother said this week — apparently eliminating gas as the source of the fire.
But grandmother Susan Secco said in an interview that the home had ongoing problems with its electrical wiring, confirming an assertion from another relative, and also had a gas leak earlier.
Secco lived minutes away from the trailer near Palmer and saw the girls and their parents regularly.
By the time the trailer was destroyed and the girls were killed on Sept. 7, the gas was cut off, an Enstar spokesperson confirmed. Enstar sent a crew to the fire, as is standard, and they examined the trailer afterward, said Lindsay Hobson, communications manager for the natural gas company.
"I know that gas was not a factor in this fire," Hobson said. "I know that our readings showed zero percent at the foundation. And there was no gas to that meter because, as you say, it had been shut off the day before."
The Alaska State Fire Marshal's office is investigating the cause of the fire and Alaska State Troopers are investigating the deaths. No new information is expected before the end of the week, said Tim DeSpain, public information supervisor for troopers.
The Butte fire was the worst in Alaska in more than 40 years in terms of children killed. On March 16, 1974, in the Southwest Alaska village in Sheldon Point, now known as Nunam Iqua, six children ages 1 to 13 perished in a house fire, according to the Alaska Division of Fire and Life Safety.
Jimmy Flores and Janelle Quackenbush lost their five daughters, ages 3-12, and almost everything they owned. A friend's dog, Lilly, died in the fire as did a guinea pig.
Quackenbush's mother, Secco, spoke in phone interviews and texted about the condition of the trailer, the events of that morning and her granddaughters.
"They were too perfect to stay in this imperfect world," Secco, 51, said in a text.
Her daughter, now 31, and Flores, who just turned 33, met years ago when both were working on trails and plantings for California Conservation Corps, a firefighting and wildlands agency. They lived apart for several years but eventually married and lived together in Sacramento, California, Secco said.
Morning of fire
Almost seven years ago, the extended family — Secco, her husband who later died, Flores, Quackenbush and their three oldest girls — moved to Alaska to get away from California crime, she said. Her daughter was pregnant.
Secco, a licensed practical nurse, worked for the Anchorage Pioneer Home and five years ago transferred to the Palmer Pioneer Home, where she still works.
The growing young family eventually moved into their own place. They all lived together in an octagon house in the Mat-Su after a stay in Anchorage.
They moved around some but about a year ago, they switched from an apartment into the mobile home to give their five girls room to play outside. The trailer itself was small, though it had three bedrooms.
Alexis, the oldest at 12 and the only one with her mother's last name, was a big help to her mother, her grandmother said. The morning of the fire, she was left in charge but didn't normally babysit for her younger sisters, Secco said.
"They didn't put responsibility on Alexis," the grandmother said.
Next in line was Nevaeh, 8, who was a budding environmentalist and would get on anyone who littered, Secco said. She also loved horses and got to sit atop one Labor Day at the Alaska State Fair. Lilyanna, 7, was a tough little fighter with a strong will. Behind her was Sofia, 6, who loved to sing and dance. The youngest, Jaelynn, 3, was spoiled by everyone, the grandmother said.
That morning was unusual, she said. Flores, the father, was training for a new job as a school bus driver. He had to leave home in the family's van around 5:30 a.m., Secco said.
The family's other vehicles needed repair. She let her daughter borrow her truck, so she needed a ride to work before 7 a.m.
Before she left home to pick up her mother, Quackenbush woke up Alexis, who was in middle school and had an earlier start time than her sisters.
She left Lilyanna and Nevaeh asleep in a back bedroom. Jaelynn and Sofia were sleeping on the living room couch, Secco said.
The stove was electric, but Alexis wouldn't have cooked anything for breakfast, the grandmother said. She would have gotten cereal or maybe a muffin.
Secco said she lives just three minutes away from the small mobile park on South Wickham Circle. When her daughter arrived that morning, she glanced at her clock. It was 6:48 a.m. At 7:02 a.m. she was at the Pioneer Home downtown.
Maybe 10 minutes later, Quackenbush arrived home to see the trailer on fire.
A neighbor who busted open the door and called for the girls told the family it was completely silent.
"They were already gone," Secco said.
New home lined up
Quackenbush smoked, but always outside, the grandmother said. Secco can't imagine any of the children waking up for school only to immediately start playing with a lighter or matches. Those items weren't left around anyway, she said.
Before the fire, the family was ready to move out of their place off the Old Glenn Highway, she said.
"They were all packed and ready to go," Secco said.
She had paid the deposit on a duplex nearby on Bodenburg Loop, she said. The family had intended to be out by this Friday, Sept. 15.
The trailer home had many problems, including with the electrical system, Secco said. She was uncertain about smoke detectors.
The mobile home park was bought by a new owner in August, and the family provided a list of ongoing problems, she said. Chris Elder, owner of the company that bought the property, told the family he would address the deficiencies, Secco said.
Before Elder, a family trust in the name of Jackie Hughes owned the property.
"He's certainly aware of the situation. He's certainly devastated by it," Hughes' attorney Eric Conard said Wednesday.
Efforts to reach Hughes directly were unsuccessful. Until the cause of the fire is determined, the former landlord isn't going to discuss publicly the specifics of what work was done or not done at the trailer, Conard said.
"There's obviously an investigation underway by fire authorities," the attorney said. "Until that's concluded, he doesn't feel it's beneficial to get into the things alleged, pure speculation."
The landlord had a punch list of repairs to work through, but couldn't have access to the house whenever he wanted, the lawyer said.
Back in October, the family noticed an outlet in the girls' back bedroom had sparked and left marks on the walls. Flores put a dollhouse in front of it so no one would use it.
The landlord first asked Flores to fix it, but Flores isn't an electrician and told the landlord it was his responsibility. The landlord eventually replaced the outlet but never got to the source of the electrical problem, Secco said.
Conard represented Hughes in an eviction proceeding against the Flores family in April.
Help for family
The family had struggled financially over the last year. Flores was out of work and Quackenbush was studying to be a hairdresser. Then things were looking up. Flores had started bus driver training and Quackenbush was a stylist at Great Clips.
When the family couldn't cover the electric bill, it reverted to the landlord for payment, who tried to evict them over that and unpaid rent of $825 for April.
The gas and electric bills were extraordinarily high for a 650-square-foot trailer home, Quackenbush said in court during the eviction hearing. For three months last winter, the gas bills alone totaled about $1,200.
The family suspected that energy was being wasted from leaks and faulty wiring, Secco said. Also, for a stretch this winter, a door was frozen open.
At an April 24 hearing, Palmer District Court Judge John Wolfe found the family had tried to pay the rent and was working on the utility bills. He refused to order the family evicted.
In June, the Salvation Army paid $424 toward the back electric bill. A state heating assistance program provided some help with the gas bill but didn't cover the whole thing because it was considered excessive for that small space, Secco said.
The family tried to find out why the electric bill was so high, Secco said. This summer, Matanuska Electric Association tested the meter and found it worked properly, yet even when everything in the home was unplugged, power was still being used, Secco said.
An MEA representative helped the family identify which outlets were troublesome. Three were draining power "with nothing plugged in," Secco said.
Quackenbush told the landlord that an electrician needed to rewire the home. The landlord replied that his "maintenance guy" was on a guided hunt and would work on the problems when he got back, Secco said, repeating what her daughter had said.
Earlier, gas had leaked from the dryer connection, but that had been fixed, Secco said.
Conard, the landlord's attorney, declined to discuss specific issues.
The parents are trying to work through the terrible loss, Secco said.
People are dropping off food. The Pioneer Hotel is donating rooms for out-of-town family. Palmer Church of the Nazarene rented a van for the family. The Noisy Goose Cafe has donated gift cards for food. People are donating gas cards.
Fundraising efforts are underway. Secco suggested those seeking to donate to do so through Great Clips in Wasilla, because the owner is matching donations. A Flores-Quackenbush memorial page on Facebook tracks the support.
"Anything we need. Anything we need. It's amazing," Secco said.
Troopers and firefighters were traumatized too. The family thanked them and the community as well.
"I can't put it enough out there how much they were there for us in our darkest moment," Secco said.
It's easy for transplanted families to feel isolated in Alaska.
"This has made us realize we were never alone," she said.
A memorial service open to the public will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Palmer Train Depot, Secco said.
The event will include a candlelight procession starting around 7:30 p.m. Children will blow bubbles instead of holding candles.
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Eric Conard's last name.