Arrow-right Camera

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Wednesday, September 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Cloudy 53° Cloudy
News >  Spokane

65 years after a fire killed her four siblings in Deep Creek, woman claims their remains

Marjorie Dunston approaches the office door at Fairmount Memorial Park, four yellow roses bunched in her hands.

She freezes for a moment, staring at the boxes sitting on a table in the center of the room. They’re covered in brown paper and wrapped tightly with twine, like a Christmas present. Decades of dust cling to the paper, but only a few of the edges are torn.

She carefully walks up to the table, her arms shaking as she begins to set the yellow roses atop each box – one rose for each brother and sister. She’s shaking so hard that some fall off, but she takes the time to move them back. All the while, she keeps repeating each of their names.

“Dorma Jean, JoAn, Larry Jr., Jerry.”

Monday, Aug. 13, 1951

A little over 65 years ago, Marjorie awoke sometime around midnight to the smell of smoke in the house her family rented in the town of Deep Creek, a few miles west of Airway Heights. So she did what any sleepy-eyed 11-year-old would do: She got up and looked for the source, and when she didn’t find it, she quickly crawled back into bed. She blocked the smell by covering her head with a pillow, assuming it would drift away eventually.

Some nights, Lawrence “Larry” Brotherton and Perquita Brotherton would stay out late in Spokane. And on those nights, they’d entrust the safety of their five children to Larry’s father, William Brotherton, who would stay over and cook a big pot of beans and homemade dumplings. The food was much better than Marjorie’s fried potatoes, the only recipe she knew at the time.

But William Brotherton didn’t stay over on that summer evening, so it was up to Marjorie to feed and look after her younger siblings.

She put the kids to bed around 9 p.m., deciding to sleep downstairs in her parents’ bed with her littlest brother Jerry, who was 5 years old, beside her.

It was a decision she later said likely saved her life.

The smoke didn’t go away. “Pretty soon, I started hearing noises and I got up,” Marjorie said last week. The noises she heard were windows blowing out from the intense pressure and heat, and the loud crackling of flames as the fire tore through the home’s wooden frame.

Marjorie called to her siblings upstairs before trying to lead Jerry through the flames and out of the house.

“I grabbed my brother by the T-shirt, but he didn’t want to go past the fire to go out the door,” Marjorie said. It’s been 65 years since she first told the story of that night to detectives, and 65 years since she last saw her brother’s face. News reports at the time said Jerry was frightened by the roaring flames and was crying loudly. All Marjorie remembers now is how his hand ripped away from her grip.

“He ran back in,” she said. Jerry died by the couch. His body was found there by firemen the next morning.

Once outside, Marjorie headed to the neighbor’s house across the street. She kept repeating, “Fire, they’re caught inside and I can’t get them out.”

The neighbors, like many people in that rural area, didn’t have telephones in 1951. Marjorie ran down the road to the home of Howard and Helen Tisdale. She remembers thinking, “There’s no way anything bad will happen.” She wasn’t worried about her brothers and sisters. She definitely didn’t think there was a chance they could all die. After all, she and Dorma Jean beat diphtheria together when Marjorie was 6. What chance did a fire have?

“The kids are going to be OK,” she remembers telling herself. “I didn’t have any thoughts that anybody was going to die. At 11, people don’t die.”

She banged on the Tisdales’ door and asked for help. Howard took off to the main gate of nearby Fairchild Air Force Base for help while Helen and Marjorie headed to the burning house. Guards at the base mistakenly called the Spokane Fire Department, which was miles away.

Marjorie and Helen tried to enter the house, but it was too hot – they couldn’t even get inside the front door. They broke the windows and shouted for the children, but all they could hear was the loud crackling of fire eating away at wood. News reports at the time estimated the children upstairs were already dead at that point – Dorma Jean, 8, JoAn, 7, and Larry Jr., 6, were found near the same bed.

Minutes later, Perquita and Larry arrived home to find the house fully engulfed. “It was just a shell falling in,” Marjorie remembers. When her mother stepped out of the truck, she fell on top of Marjorie out of shock. She was taken to Deaconess Hospital for treatment.

Everyone watched as the house began to collapse. Neighbors who were awakened by the harsh glow of orange in their windows or the commotion going on outside were powerless to help. Marjorie cried hysterically in the arms of a friend as newspaper reporters arrived on scene.

While firemen continued to dump water on the flames, Marjorie headed to her friend’s house down the road. By morning, the house was gone. A photo taken the next day by the Spokane Daily Chronicle shows a tricycle – which wasn’t in the house at the time – in front of a pile of ash and burned metal. Marjorie later said nothing in the house was salvageable.

A cause of the fire was never determined. But that didn’t stop people from having their suspicions.

“Someone had been going around setting fires under porches,” Marjorie said. A fire wasn’t burning in the fireplace that hot summer night, and Larry told reporters he didn’t have a clue what happened. He said then that it could have been defective wiring or the hot water tank.

Days after the fire, newspaper articles reported that clothes and money were donated to Marjorie before school started in the fall. The family moved to Spokane.

Time wasn’t particularly favorable to any of them. In the years that followed the fire, the Brotherton family, much like the house, fell apart. Marjorie’s life was never the same.

‘I didn’t get to go to the funeral’

The office walls at Fairmount Memorial Park are covered in samples of coffins and burial containers; three large windows in the back reveal green fields pocked with marble and granite headstones.

It’s Marjorie Dunston’s first visit to Spokane in many years. She and her daughter Connie Hobbs, her sister-in-law Liz Allen and Hobbs’ distant cousin Sharon Hedlund visit the cemetery. They’re led to the back room by Tom Kauffman, the cemetery’s family-service representative.

Everyone sits and stands with their back to the window as Marjorie runs her hands over the boxes containing her brothers and sisters.

A sticker on each parcel has spaces for record keeping – incineration number, book and page numbers – and the child’s name.

It’s the first time Marjorie has seen her siblings in over six decades. She’s crying, but not sobbing. Her eyes are full with tears when she breaks the silence.

“I didn’t get to go to the funeral,” she says, staring at the four boxes. “They let me go a day or two before to see the four little white caskets and pick a flower off each one and put it in my Bible. And that was it.”

Back then, Marjorie had short blond hair and freckles. Today, she keeps her hair shorter, and the blond has since gone to gray. The eyes are the same piercing blue, though, and the freckles still hang around the bridge of her nose and cheeks.

Marjorie brought a box of old photographs with her to the office. There are a few snapshots of the five children together – Marjorie and Dorma Jean were biological sisters, while Jerry, Larry Jr. and JoAn were their stepsiblings. A photo of Dorma Jean and Marjorie standing in front of the porch of their old house is marked Aug. 17, 1951 – written days after Dorma Jean’s death by the sheriff’s office and used in the investigation after the fire.

Ever since the fire, Marjorie remembers watching people walking down the street, to see if her siblings were with them. At that time, she didn’t quite understand what it meant to lose somebody.

“Since then, I’ve always craved wanting brothers and sisters,” she says.

Kauffman, at Fairmount Memorial Park, said the family had paid off the cost of the cremation long ago, but nobody had ever come to pick up the children’s remains.

“We had a policy where we’d put the remains in storage, assuming people would come by one day,” Kauffman says. He estimates there are over 100 cremated remains still in storage, “but a lot of these people just forget.”

The Brotherton children’s remains sat in the cemetery office until earlier this summer, when Marjorie’s daughter was visiting Spokane and got to talking with Hedlund, her cousin, about whose family stories were the craziest.

The conversation led to the realization that the family still had unclaimed remains at Fairmount Memorial Park. Hobbs and Hedlund were able to discover the remains after a volunteer at Find A Grave – an online database of cemetery records – added the four kids’ remains to its database in January. As fate would have it, the conversation happened on Aug. 14, 2016 – exactly 65 years after the fire.

“It’s such an amazing coincidence,” Hobbs says.

Mother ‘checked out’ after the fire

Perquita Brotherton was never the same after losing four of her children. Says Marjorie simply, she “checked out after the fire.”

Sometime after the funeral, the family moved into an apartment above a bar on Second Avenue in downtown Spokane, where Larry Brotherton worked. Then, just like the fire that destroyed their lives and possessions a few years prior, the three were evicted from their apartment. Marjorie remembers returning home to see the landlord locking the door with all of her things still inside.

Marjorie’s parents divorced after a few years. Her mother remarried, but shortly after that she checked herself into Eastern State Hospital, where she remained for the next two decades.

“She just kind of went bonkers,” Marjorie says. “She became institutionalized and didn’t want to leave.”

She died in 1986 of throat cancer at a retirement home in Montana – she smoked for most of her life.

Larry Brotherton took a darker turn. Marjorie says he blamed her for the fire; for the death of his three biological kids and one stepdaughter. After the divorce, Larry Brotherton moved to Tacoma and Marjorie never saw him again. He died there in 1972 and was buried in New Tacoma Cemetery.

Marjorie ended up in foster care and continued to try hard in school. But at 18, she got pregnant and was forced to drop out. In a twist of irony, her husband, Bill Hobbs, came from a family of firefighters. “Back then, they didn’t like pregnant people going to school, so I went to work,” Marjorie says. When she was 27, she returned to school and earned her diploma – her four children attended the graduation.

Marjorie divorced Bill in 1966, and then met Larry Dunston. She was at a dance with another suitor when she saw him across a crowded room. She married him in 1968, melding their two families of four children each.

“When I find something good, I stick with it,” Marjorie says. “And he’s good.”

The couple moved from Spokane in 1979 and began a long career of working for title insurance companies. They even built their own business for a time in the 1980s in Parker, Arizona.

The two eventually made their way back to Washington in 1989, where Larry Dunston drove a semitruck hauling mobile homes in Vancouver. They then moved to the small town of Elma, Washington, to the home of Marjorie’s biological father, who had died.

And on Wednesday, Marjorie finally made the 700 mile round-trip back to Spokane.

“I asked her in the car on the way over how she felt,” says Connie Hobbs, her daughter, who shares her mother’s quick wit and sharp blue eyes.

“She said she was afraid ‘they wouldn’t remember me.’ ”

‘I’m going to take everyone to the ocean’

Marjorie steps out of her daughter’s pickup truck, this time in the spot where her childhood home used to be.

She immediately recognizes the large white house behind her. She tells the story of the neighbors who used to live there, how they were wealthy and used to pay her handsomely for babysitting their two children.

“They’d pay me 25 cents an hour,” she says. “And sometimes, even a whole dollar.”

The “Lawrence Brotherton house,” as it’s referred to in old newspaper clippings, was off Highway 2 at the bottom of a long hill in the town of Deep Creek, a small cropping of houses and a church near the actual Deep Creek, a few miles west of Airway Heights and Fairchild Air Force Base.

The parcel of land where the house sat was likely owned by Della Catherine Forsland and Robert Forsland, who purchased it from George Sims in December 1949. The Brothertons were renting the house when it burned, and had plans to buy it.

Based on old photographs and Marjorie’s memory, the house had two stories, a front porch and a chimney. It was mostly wood and had a large fireplace near the center.

Today, a run-down, blue log cabin with blue trim sits where the house once stood. Neighbors there don’t know the story of the four children who died nearby in 1951.

The house across the street, a large, white two-story home with a large and distinguished covered patio, is visible in the background of a photo that accompanied the newspaper article with the headline, “4 Die in Fire Despite Girl’s Heroism.”

Wednesday was the first time Marjorie had been back to Deep Creek since that Tuesday morning 65 years ago. Marjorie’s sister-in-law Liz Allen begins to cry. She says she can’t believe how many times she’s driven by an old barn or house without ever thinking about what may have happened there decades before.

She wonders how many people drive by this particular plot of land every day without a clue.

Marjorie remembers the church the family used to attend a few hundred yards down Highway 2, and the corner of land where a general store used to sit – now just an empty lot. She also remembers the small shed in the backyard near the cabin, which she’s pretty sure was there before; it used to double as a playhouse for the children.

Now that she’s reunited with her siblings’ ashes, she plans to sprinkle them in the Pacific Ocean with the ashes of her son, Melvin Hobbs, who was hit by a car in north Spokane soon after his 50th birthday in 2014. She’ll have to wait until next spring or summer, when the weather is nicer.

“(Melvin) wants to go to the ocean and I think I’m going to take everyone to the ocean,” Marjorie says. “They never really got to see it but once.”

But until then, she plans on keeping them with her for at least a little while longer. After all, it’s been 65 years since she’s seen them.

“I grew up without them,” she says. “And I don’t want to grow anymore without them.”

Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter

Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.

You have been successfully subscribed!
There was a problem subscribing you to the newsletter. Double check your email and try again, or email webteam@spokesman.com