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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRESTORMS | VICTIMS' FINAL MOMENTS

Amid the Chaos, Heart Attacks

October 27, 2003|Nita Lelyveld, Sandra Murillo and Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writers

Convinced that his San Bernardino home was about to be consumed by wildfire, James W. McDermith rushed to retrieve his camper at a nearby trailer park. The house survived, but McDermith, 70, did not. He died en route, of a heart attack, authorities said.

Charles H. Cunningham, 93, another San Bernardino resident, seemed so sure he wasn't in danger that he drove toward his house as neighbors fled theirs. He died of a heart attack, too -- as his house alone burst into flames.

The two men, who died Saturday, were among more than a dozen reported fire-related deaths as of Sunday evening. In San Diego County, at least 11 people died Sunday as infernos tore across the California landscape.

Soon after he retired as a certified public accountant, McDermith bought himself the camper and a new Dodge pickup to tow it.

He and his wife, MaryEllen, planned to travel, heading back to the rural Midwest where he was born. Recently, their health put a crimp in their plans. She had foot surgery. His heart problems got worse. McDermith retired in 1998, his daughter-in-law, Lisa McDermith, said. "The sad part about it is he just didn't get to enjoy it too long," she said.

He had three grown children and four grandchildren.

Lisa McDermith said the man she called "dad" had a lot of old friends, but "he wasn't real open." His quiet ways, she said, probably came from his country background, on a 160-acre farm outside the small town of Pana, Ill.

McDermith wanted to be a veterinarian, said his older brother Donald, who recently retired as one. But his allergies got in his way.

"Baling hay, he had a time," Donald McDermith, 76, said.

In 1959, James McDermith came west to San Bernardino, which his brother described as "fine, if you want to live in town." Donald McDermith lives in Summersville, Mo., population 570.

McDermith's plan Saturday was to use the camper as a temporary shelter if his house burned down, said relatives.

He'd taken it on at least one trip, about two years ago, to Missouri, Donald McDermith said.

"He was so enthused with his truck and his camper," he said. "We had a really fine time, rode horses, but he had, well, seems like he had problems ever since."

Cunningham also had a camper, which he kept parked at his house. He used to take trips with his wife, Gladys, who died 10 years ago, neighbors said.

After she died, Cunningham was a familiar sight on the block in his undershirt, shorts and with his socks pulled up high. He often regaled the neighborhood kids with tales of his travels.

"I think he was really lonely. That's why he talked to us," said Brianna Bresnahan, 17, who said she cried when she learned of his death.

The former U.S. Air Force loadmaster and school maintenance man remained active in church and in fraternal organizations, neighbors said.

But in recent years, he kept mostly to himself, taking his meals at the neighborhood Jack in the Box and seldom coming outside. Brush piled up on his untended lawn.

On Sunday night, little remained of the house. Barbara Baldwin, a neighbor for at least 20 years, said she and others were evacuating about 3 p.m. Saturday when she saw Cunningham."We were just kind of hoping that he was going to leave, too," she said.

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