3 kids died; ‘Apathy caused the fire’


Madera County Historical Society

These children survived the tragic fire in which three of their siblings died.

The fire spread so rapidly on that September night that four of the seven Fleming kids never had a chance. Three died in the flames and one had to be taken to the hospital in critical condition.


Their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Fleming, had gone to the laundromat to wash clothes and left their children at home alone.


“Home” was a haphazard affair; no record of a building permit was ever found. Someone had just decided to slap a little shack together in two sections and rent it out. One section was 9 by 16 feet, and it had been enlarged later with another 26 by 16-foot section. The place had no running water, power, or gas.


Mr. and Mrs. Fleming had only been in Madera a week. They had moved from Pine Bluff, Arkansas into the ramshackle hovel at 10470 Harper Blvd.


It must have been chilly that night or perhaps the kids were just afraid of the dark. Whatever the reason, the children decided to create a “lantern” out of a soda pop bottle. They filled the bottle with kerosene and stuffed in a rag to serve as a wick. Then they set fire to their makeshift candle and went on with their games, not paying any attention that their “lamp” was sitting on a blanket.


It was a tragedy in the making. Fire consumed the rag, and the bottle exploded, igniting the blanket and everything around it. The kids were stunned and reacted instinctively. The three oldest, Shirley Mae, 13, George, 11, and John, 8, burst out the front door. Edward Lee, 5, ran for the closet; Jane Ella, 3, crawled under the bed, Seven-year-old Paulette remained on the bed with the nine-month-old baby.


Robert Moran and Al Kessler of the California Division of Forestry were the first officials on the scene of the fire. There was nothing they could do except to keep the screaming parents, who had returned from the laundromat, from running into the flames in a futile attempt to save their children.


Finally, the flames consumed the structure, and the charred bodies of Edward, Jane, and the baby, were recovered and taken to Jays Chapel. Somehow, Paulette survived, and she was rushed to the hospital with burns on 40 percent of her body.


The next morning, Madera was stunned, and everyone began to point fingers. District Attorney Lester Gendron, speaking from the scene of the fire, said that the three deaths were the result of “the apathy of the citizens of Madera County.”


“These children were burned to death in a house that should have never been built or rented.”


He continued. “The County Supervisors should instruct their building inspectors to enforce their building code.”


“They don’t want to enforce the building code because the people feel it’s infringing on their rights. These people obviously have never smelled burning flesh, or they wouldn’t feel that way,” he concluded.


Gendron wasn’t the only Maderan shaken by the deaths of the children.


Members of the Madera Progressive Men’s Club indicated they would attend the City Council meeting Monday night to argue for better housing in Madera. Members who circulated a petition earlier in the year to get low-rent housing for Madera met with the District Attorney on Tuesday morning to discuss their petition.


In the meantime, The Madera County Board of Supervisors decided to hold its own inquest into the fire.


Al Kessler told the supervisors, “We see these houses every day; we know their danger, but can’t do anything about them.”


To this, there came a strong rebuttal from the District Attorney. Gendron related how a building code was passed in Madera County four years ago and how the people “were not then willing to accept it, sending two supervisors who had supported it down to defeat during the following elections.”


He related how the entire County Planning Commission had resigned in mass over the suspension of the code. The people, said Gendron, refused to submit to a regulation which, in itself, was fair. He warned, “As long as substandard housing exists in the community, the possibility of such deaths is possible.”


And so it was; meanwhile, the Flemings agonized over their tragic loss and Madera prepared for a struggle to ensure that such a horrific thing would never happen again.

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