Three young children died in an early-morning blaze in January 1956 in the tiny town of Rieth, just outside Pendleton. The children’s father disappeared shortly after the fire, setting off a nation-wide search.
The fire broke out at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 30, 1956, just minutes after Chester O’Neal left with sons Chester Jr., 13, and Stanley, 10, to deliver their newspaper route. A neighbor living directly across the street from the O’Neal family rousted Raymond Long out of bed shortly after 6 a.m., pounding on his door and shouting that the O’Neal home was in flames. Long was unable to enter the front door of the house because it was not in use and had been blocked with a piece of heavy furniture. “I kicked in the front window in the bedroom and the inside seemed to explode,” Long said.
George Powers, the O’Neal children’s grandfather, arrived five minutes later and attempted to enter the house through the back door. The heat was so intense that he burned off the hair from his forehead to his crown.
Neighbors strung garden hoses to the burning house in an attempt to battle the flames. Rieth did not have firefighting equipment or a volunteer fire department, and Pendleton fire crews were unable to respond because Rieth was outside their jurisdiction. The home burned completely; only the steel bed frames, stoves, utensils and the brick chimney were left.
Three of the O’Neals’ 10 children, Phyllis Jean, 8, Carol Jane, 7, and Richard Dennis, 6, died in the fire. O’Neal had wanted the children to accompany him on the paper route, but they wanted to stay home in bed. He banked the fire in a wood-burning heater before leaving with the two older boys. The cause of the fire was undetermined.
O’Neal’s wife Ethylene was in St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, having just given birth to their 10th child. Their one-year-old son David also was in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. The three other O’Neal children, Peggy, 4, Connie, 3, and LeRoy, 2, were staying with an aunt in Adams.
Chester Sr. returned home while the fire was still blazing and, learning that his children had died in the fire, left immediately for the hospital to inform his wife. He was there for about an hour, then left the older boys with relatives in Rieth and took to the highway, disappearing for four days.
While police across the United States were searching for Chester, the Red Cross and the local community banded together to provide for the remaining family. An apartment at Pend-Air was furnished with everything the family would need, including furniture, clothing, utensils, dishes and more. A fund was set up to pay the rent and provide food.
Rumors flew around the community about Chester O’Neal’s disappearance. George Powers reported to state police that Raymond Long had heard a radio broadcast that claimed O’Neal had crashed his car, leaving a note that “life is not worth living,” but none of the local radio stations could verify the report.
On Feb. 2, Chester O’Neal walked in to the Red Cross office in Stillwater, Okla., saying he “hadn’t known what he was doing” when he left Pendleton and didn’t realize police were searching for him. He had returned to a farm he owned in Siloam Springs, Ark., where he has family, and spoke to his wife about having the bodies of the children shipped to Arkansas to be buried next to another of their children, a daughter who died nine years previously. Ethylene originally agreed to his request, then changed her mind and had the children buried at Olney Cemetery in Pendleton.
Her husband, Ethylene said, wanted the family to return to Siloam Springs. She moved into their new home at Pend-Air on Feb. 4 with her seven remaining children, saying she and the children planned to remain in Pendleton.
But when O’Neal returned a week later, the family prepared to pack up for a cross-country move. Loan regulations on the farm he was making payments on, he explained, required his presence on the property. “I appreciate everything the folks here did for my wife and family,” O’Neal said, “and I feel sorry we’ve got to leave again. But I would have left here about the first of May if the fire hadn’t happened.”
The tragedy jolted Rieth into action, and plans were soon underway to fund and equip the volunteer firefighting team that had been organized. A committee hoped to secure a $10 pledge from each resident of the tiny town, to be used to buy a second-hand fire engine or a down payment on a new one.
Renee Struthers is the Community Records Editor for the East Oregonian. See the complete collection of Out of the Vault columns at eovault.blogspot.com