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The Fire Lover: A True Story

Chapter One


South Pasadena is a small city of some twenty thousand residents
who live within three square miles of mostly aging homes and
limited commercial property. Many of the houses were built in the
1920s, the heyday of California mission architecture, before the
Great Depression stifled home building. Neighboring Pasadena, host
to the famous Rose Parade, continued building luxury homes well
into the 1930s, some of them gems of California style, all in need
of periodic renovation. A good place for homeowners to buy
materials to refurbish those old houses was Ole's Home Center on
Fair Oaks Avenue, an eighteen-thousand-square-foot building in a
strip mall, three blocks from the town's only fire station.

At 7:30 P.M. that October evening, a middle-aged couple, Billy and
Ada Deal, and their two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Matthew
William Troidl, arrived in Ole's parking lot. Matthew immediately
spotted the neighboring Baskin-Robbins and wanted ice cream. His
grandfather promised him they would have their treat after they
finished shopping, and they walked through the entry door.

Working in the housewares department that evening was
seventeen-year-old Jimmy Cetina. He was a high-school senior and a
talented athlete. In fact, this varsity center fielder was being
scouted by the Chicago Cubs to play double A ball. He had Latino
good looks, and had recently entered a Bullock's department store
modeling competition and won it. Doubtlessly, he would rather have
been at some other place than Ole's Home Center on that October
evening, especially during the World Series, but there were seven
children in his family who had to look for empty bottles and cans
to exchange for deposits if they wanted to buy sports equipment. He
needed this job.

Billy and Ada Deal knew that the near-empty store was about to
close, so they decided to split up and shop separately to save
time. Billy wanted to buy some cheap two-by-fours, so he headed for
the lumber display, which was between the north and south fire
doors. Ada said she was going to the paint department.

Carolyn Krause was working in the paint department that evening, so
she may well have seen the fifty-year-old grandmother pushing her
grandson Matthew William in a shopping cart. Carolyn Krause was
married to an LAPD lieutenant and had two young children of her
own. She may have heard Matthew asking when he was going to get his
ice cream. And someone else who was in that store may have heard
him too. Or perhaps not. This issue would be later debated in
courts of law.

It had been a long shift for Jim Obdam. The young clerk had been
working in the hardware department all day and into the evening.
Just after 8:00 P.M. he heard something over the PA system, but
couldn't make out what had been said. He was headed for the front
of the store, toward the south aisle, and there he was astonished
to see a column of dark smoke rising from a display rack, all the
way to the ceiling.

Jim Obdam hurried toward the west end of the store, looking for
customers. He saw people heading toward the exits, but still was
not alarmed when he arrived at the paint department.

"Are there any more people in your section?" he asked Carolyn

She answered, "I'll check my area!" And then she rushed through the
hardware department looking for stragglers.

Still, nobody was alarmed. Nobody had seen any fire, just that
column of dark smoke. In fact, Jim Obdam found two people browsing
in hardware, looking at tools. He told them to leave the store at

And then he encountered a middle-aged woman with a small child in a
shopping cart. Ada Deal was looking at merchandise on an end cap at
the foot of the aisle.

"We've got to leave the store," Jim Obdam told her. "But don't be

Ada Deal put some merchandise into the cart behind her grandson,
Matthew. Jim Obdam walked hurriedly down the north aisle toward the
main part of the store, but when he looked around, Ada Deal hadn't
started to follow, so he went back.

"You should probably leave the cart here," he said, more
forcefully. "Take the child and let's go!"

And then he headed toward the front of the store, assuming that Ada
Deal and her grandson were following behind him. He was near the
north fire door, about two aisles away, when he looked back toward
that column of smoke. But it was no longer a cloud. It was a
wall of flame. It was bright orange and raging. Then
he noticed the north fire door had closed. That steel door had
dropped down.

When he turned to look for the woman and child he heard a popping
noise and the lights went out. And Jim Obdam suddenly felt alone
and trapped.

A bell chimed in the lumber area: "Ting ting ting." That's
how Billy Deal described it. And there was an unintelligible
announcement. He thought that the store was closing so he looked at
his watch. It was 8:05 P.M. Yes, it must be a closing announcement,
he thought.

But then a peculiar thing happened. A young man on a forklift
jumped off the vehicle and cried, "My God, it's a fire!" And he
took off running.

Billy looked around. He couldn't see what the young man was getting
excited about. There was nothing. But suddenly some people ran
through the fire door and yelled, "Get outta here! There's a

Billy peered through that door, that fireproof barricade, toward
the west side of the store, and he saw a big cloud of smoke in the
center of the space. He ran toward the south fire door searching
for Ada and Matthew, and when he got...

Excerpted from THE FIRE LOVER: A True Story © Copyright
2011 by Joseph Wambaugh. Reprinted with permission by William
Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights

The Fire Lover: A True Story
by by Joseph Wambaugh

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 006009527X
  • ISBN-13: 9780060095277