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ghosttruck

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Nothing could have prepared emergency responders in Parkersburg, W.Va., for the inferno they rolled up on 50 years ago this week. Dante himself could not have conjured a more heartrending scene.

Charles and Ruby Bailey and 10 of their 13 children were entombed by a flash fire that consumed the interior of their tar-paper rental house. The fire materialized at 1 a.m. on Sunday, June 8, 1969. Customers at Jimbo’s, a nearby drive-in, reported the flames and rushed to help.

But rescuers were driven back by the heat, even as a female inside made her final pleas for help.

“Most of the bodies were near windows and doors, but (they) couldn’t make it out of the house,” a local fire lieutenant, William George, told the press.

The juvenile victims included girls ages 17, 11, 9, 7 and 5 and boys ages 6, 4, 3, 21 months and 6 months. Years later, a cop who was among the first to arrive told the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, “The baby was fried.” He added ruefully, “Everybody else was fried.”

Rescuers found Charles Bailey’s father, Obie, known as “Grandpop,” sitting outside in shock. The only survivor, he said he had scrambled out a bathroom window.

Two other children, Susie, 15, and Rodger, 13, who slept in a small outbuilding, were missing but turned up later that night at a relative’s house.

The Baileys had moved to Parkersburg, a gritty little industrial city on the Ohio River, from a town 25 miles away just weeks earlier after Charles, 40, was hired as a maintenance supervisor at the local county courthouse. The position was a godsend for a couple that had struggled to provide for the 13 children they produced over 19 years of marriage. (Their oldest, Juliet, 20, was married and living in Illinois.)

It would turn out that the fire that flipped their dream job into a nightmare was no accident.

Officers smelled gasoline around the house, and E.L. Roush, assistant state fire marshal, promptly diagnosed arson. He said the burn pattern suggested that someone had splashed gas throughout the house. Suspicion initially fell on Grandpop Bailey, but that changed in a kitchen-table conversation 12 hours after the fire between teenage Rodger Bailey and a relative named Helen Enoch.

“If you won’t tell anyone,” young Bailey said, “I’ll tell you something about that fire.”

He explained that sister Susie had enlisted him to help incinerate their kin after their father had forbidden Susie from dating her boyfriend, John Bumgarner, 19, because he was her first cousin.

Soon, both Susie and Rodger had signed confessions for Fire Marshal Roush.

“I told Rodger that I was going to set the house on fire after they all went to bed,” Susie Bailey wrote. She and the brother siphoned gas from their father’s truck into a dishpan, then quietly sloshed it around as their family slept.

“I put gasoline into every room but the bathroom,” Susie admitted. She touched off the inferno by tossing a flaming paper bag through a window.

She and Rodger then fled to a rendezvous with Bumgarner.

Susie confirmed that her motive was a parental conflict. “If I did not stop seeing my boyfriend,” she said her father had warned, “he would have a warrant sworn out for his arrest.”

The teen siblings were charged as adults with 12 counts of murder, and their confessions seemed to ensure conviction.

But then it all went up in smoke.
 

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