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The Nation

Suspicious Inferno Illuminates a Murky Past

Man paces outside his burning house with his wife and son trapped inside. How could he leave them, officers wonder, even to call 911.

November 10, 2002|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

CARY, Ill. — The fire on High Road was an angry monster.

It ripped through the roof of the wood-frame house, shattered windows and wrecked everything in its path, its hot breath searing walls black.

The fire sprang to life about 2 a.m. in the living room, near a Christmas tree. In minutes, flames filled the room, then roared along the hallways, blowtorch-hot, eating into beams and timbers.

Thick smoke billowed up the stairs, into the rooms, under the beds.

In a second-floor hallway, the plastic shell of a smoke detector attached to the ceiling began to melt, curling inward to the place where a 9-volt battery should have been.

Through the eaves, tongues of flame licked upward, lighting the sky for blocks around with a false dawn.

A neighbor who peered out his window from across the street saw a husky man silhouetted in the eerie glow, pacing quickly back and forth, staring at the burning house.

This figure, shoeless and wearing pajamas despite the snow and 10-degree cold, was John T. Veysey III.

"Help, get my wife and kid out!" Veysey shouted as he ran toward Sgt. Edward Fetzer, the first police officer to arrive.

The two men hurried to the side of the house. Fetzer got down on hands and knees and Veysey stood on his back, using the officer's flashlight to break a window. Glass rained down on Fetzer. Then Veysey fell.

The officer found a ladder, climbed to the window and shined the flashlight in. All he could see was black smoke.

From somewhere inside came a groan.

"Let me go in!" Veysey said in a voice that seemed filled with panic.

No one was stopping him. But, Fetzer noticed, Veysey made no move.

"Where is the fire department?" Veysey wailed.

Fetzer looked at him. He was rumpled and he seemed half-crazed with worry, but the sergeant could see no serious injuries, no burns or bruises.

How had he managed to get out? Why were his wife and son still inside? Fetzer had no time to pursue those questions.

In the days ahead, many more questions would surface, and the answers would reveal that this was just the latest disaster in John Veysey's life.

His aura of doom would soon pique the interest of a detective on the small police force in Cary, a village an hour outside Chicago, and his suspicions would grow the more he discovered. In time -- and the case would take years and reach far beyond this town -- others would dig deeper, including dogged prosecutors and a team of federal agents, one of them a sleuth who had traveled the world, unraveling the mysteries of fire.

But now, on this freezing morning in January 1998, the first priority was to stop the High Road fire from becoming a killer.

A few blocks away, the radio pager on the night table beside Brad Delatorre's bed began beeping.

"Structure fire at 342 High Road. People trapped," a dispatcher's voice intoned. Delatorre, a volunteer firefighter in Cary, forced himself awake.

The four-block drive to the fire station took less than a minute.

Delatorre hustled into bunker pants and rubber boots and pulled a Nomex fireproof hood over his head. He jumped into a seat on Engine 243, shrugging into the harness of his 7-pound oxygen tank as the truck raced through the darkness.

A block from the house, Delatorre could see flames leaping from windows. Smoke was going to be everywhere.

A fire lieutenant met the engine and briefed Delatorre: A woman and a child were in a rear bedroom. No one knew what kind of shape they were in, but it couldn't be good.

From the time he was a boy, Delatorre had always wanted to be a firefighter. It was a rush, a thrill. That had never changed, even after eight years.

He knew what had to be done. He had practiced the drill, pulling plastic dummies out of smoke-filled buildings with instructors watching.

This was the first time it was for real.

Adrenaline pumping, Delatorre adjusted his hood, put on his air mask, helmet and gloves, and forced open the front door.

A furnace-like blast hit him. Flames cascaded down the stairs, and a fireball flew over his head.

The smoke was so dense that at first Delatorre was almost blind. He could barely make out the first stair.

Getting down on hands and knees to avoid the worst of the heat, he put his left hand against the wall and crawled forward.

Like all firefighters, he dreaded becoming lost and wandering aimlessly in the deadly smoke. If he had to retreat, he could turn around and use his right hand against the wall to guide him out.

Flames were shooting along the ceiling.

"Let's go! Let's go!" he yelled to firefighter Andy Veath, behind him on the dark stairs. "We've got people trapped."

Veath, a firefighter for a decade, had once saved an 18-month-old girl from choking. He kept her photo on his desk.

Now he was moving so quickly that part of his air pack got tangled with his left glove, and he ran in with one hand bare. He touched something hot -- very hot -- and he winced as he moved up the stairs with Delatorre.

At the top, they turned left and crawled down the hall.

"Anyone here?" Delatorre called. "Anyone here?!"

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