YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Firefighters' deaths torment homeowner

October 28, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

Greg Koeller wonders what must have happened in those terrible minutes when four firemen died trying to protect his desert home.

He thinks about what the scene must have been like, with the flames shooting up the hill, whipped by the wind, the panic the men must have felt. He pulled out a photo of the house and pointed to a dirt road he thought could have been an escape route. But then he also said he could only guess what happened at his house on the outskirts of Banning.

"I can't understand why they didn't get out of there," Koeller said Friday, sitting in the tiny, cluttered living room of his other home, in Lawndale. "We don't know why they didn't jump in the pool, or if they got up there and got in trouble right away. Maybe they just didn't have the time to react."

The deaths of the firefighters weigh on him, as does the loss of the octagon-shaped home he finished building in 1990 after years of work, the antique cars that were in the garage, the Indian artifacts his wife, Denise, collected over the last quarter-century.

Koeller said he and his family spent many of their weekends at the house, riding all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles, watching coyotes and bobcats wander about, catching snakes and tarantulas that Denise showed children at the elementary school where she works.

Koeller, a 53-year-old toolmaker at the Northrop Grumman plant in El Segundo, said news of the fire didn't worry him much, even after he heard it was in the general area of his weekend home.

"Going into work, I heard there was a fire in Cabazon, but I didn't think much of it," he said. "There are quite a few fires up there."

Only eight years ago, one blaze was stopped about 800 feet from his place.

Even as he and Denise watched the news Thursday evening, the exact location of the fire was still unclear. But finally, one of the television camera angles was just right, showing the charred remains of what had been his labor of love.

Koeller had built most of the house himself, designing it so it had a 24-foot ceiling at its highest point. He'd wanted to make it round, but settled on octagonal because an architect had advised him that flat walls would make it easier to install windows and doors.

Now all that is left, at least from what he can tell without driving up there, are the cinderblock walls that gave the house its shape. He has no illusions about the fate of the cars and the Indian artifacts: They are gone.

And he doesn't plan to go up there for a while, simply because he probably couldn't get past the roadblocks on the main road leading to what's left of the home, where he often spent the better part of the week despite the 105-mile one-way drive to work.

Koeller said that besides the roadblocks and the destruction he was sure to find, there was another reason not to venture back just yet.

"It's a crime scene," he said, alluding to the fact that the Esperanza fire was deliberately set. "I'm sure they're still trying to figure out what happened."

Los Angeles Times Articles