WILMINGTON — For more than 40 years, Harry and Michael Landers and Susan (Landers) McNamara — who survived the deadliest fire in town history — believed an electrical problem was the cause of the blaze that killed their mother, three brothers, and two sisters. Along with the other survivors — their father, David Landers, and cousin, Joe Casey — they rarely discussed the tragedy.
That changed in 2009, after a middle-aged man introduced himself to David Landers on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Sept. 26, 1969, fire.
“I came home from work and my father said, ‘You’re not going to believe who was here today,’ ” said Susan McNamara, who is now 58 and lives in the house her father rebuilt on the Clark Street site after the original one burned down.
The appearance of that man, and his reappearance again last year at the cemetery where the parents and siblings are buried, are among the clues that have led town fire and police officials to reopen the investigation into the fatal blaze. The renewed interest comes some 44 years after the Wilmington Fire Department determined that the fire was started by an electrical malfunction.
“At the end of the day, my feeling is that Nancy and her five kids were murdered. This is a set fire,” said Wilmington Fire Chief Edward G. Bradbury, who has studied the black and white photos taken inside the house after the fire. He said that electrical fires smolder for a long period and create large amounts of smoke. Bradbury said the Landers fire was fast-moving and largely restricted to an area in the living room, where a couch burned along with part of the entryway near the front door.
“It suggests to me that this is a set fire and that there was an accelerant involved,” Bradbury said in an interview with the Globe.
It is unclear whether the state fire marshal will help. Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the fire marshal’s office, said it was “not involved in the relook at this case.” When asked why, she declined further comment.
This had not deterred Wilmington police, who have joined with Bradbury in the investigation.
“It doesn’t feel like it fits as an electrical fire,” said Wilmington Police Detective Brian Gillis, who has also looked at photos from the fire and is trying to track down the little documentation left of the blaze in the station’s archives.
Chris Neville, a retired Wilmington police detective who knew the Landers clan in his youth, has researched the case for four years and also thinks the fire could have been set. His focus now is on the same “person of interest” who approached the Landers family in the past, and who he said has visited the family gravesite on anniversaries of the fire.
Neville learned that less than a year after the fire, David Landers had discovered twisted-up newspapers soaked in gasoline smoldering under the trailer the surviving family members lived in while the house was being rebuilt. According to his children, David brought the burnt newspapers to the police station, located less than one-fifth of a mile from his home.
When Neville went to research the fire and the alleged arson attempt of the trailer, he found no police reports.
“I found a black hole,” the retired detective said. “There were no investigative reports on the fire, and all I was able to locate was the individual police officer’s narrative from the night of the fire.”
While little paperwork has turned up from the Landers fire, Wilmington safety personnel have found logs that detail a rash of arsons in the town in the fall of 1969. From Sept. 21 to Nov. 17, there were 16 fires of suspicious origin in town, 11 of them called arson by investigators. No one was ever charged with setting any of them.
Those blazes include a report of a car fire called in by the same “person of interest.” That
information, along with details about the man who approached David Landers in 2009, have led Neville to identify him as someone who may have set the fire. Neville said the man had been convicted for an attempt to commit arson, assault and battery, check fraud, and other crimes, and has served more than 20 years in jail.
Last year, a few days before the fire’s anniversary, said Susan McNamara, the same man approached her at the Wilmington cemetery where her parents and five siblings are buried. According to McNamara, the man told her he was now a Christian and that her father, David Landers — who died in 2010 — had forgiven him for what he had done.
“I told him that was a lie, and that ‘my father didn’t forgive you for anything and that you’re responsible for burning my house down,’ ” she said.
Before he showed up at her father’s door, the last time Susan McNamara had thought about the visitor was in the days immediately following the fire, when police arrived at her school and asked her if she knew anything about the man.
Last year, after Neville tried to interview the man about the fire, the man’s attorney informed the retired detective that there would be no conversations with police.
On the narrow, tree-lined Wilmington street where kids played in backyards and adults sat in easy chairs on their wrap-around porches, Sept. 26, 1969, seemed like another early Friday morning at the Landers home. With her eight children and husband and a nephew asleep, Nancy Landers’ home was full – like she always wanted it – and around midnight, she returned from a night out with friends, opened the unlocked door, walked upstairs, and went to bed.
Three hours later, she heard what sounded like an earthquake and woke up her husband, David, Susan recalled. In the basement, the two oldest children, Harry, 16, and Mike, 15, also heard the boom, jumped out of bed, grabbed their pet monkey, and ran outside from the cellar door into the backyard.
Knowing the Fire Department was just one-third of a mile away, Harry began to run — barefoot — for help and stopped at the end of his street when he saw the fire trucks.
Meanwhile, the Landers’ nephew, Joe Casey, was awakened by the heat in his backporch bedroom. Nancy and David Landers had asked him to move in after his parents died. Casey, who had returned from Vietnam less than a year earlier, saw that his electric clock had stopped at 1:20 a.m. He peered through a door, saw flames on the first floor, punched a hole in a window — severing nerves in his hand — and leaped over to a small roof before jumping to the ground.
“It’s the worst thing I ever went through. I had just come back from Vietnam and I can remember saying to myself, ‘I thought I had seen everything from being overseas, and this was worse,’ ” said Casey, who is now 66, lives in North Andover, and works as a real estate project manager.
Upstairs, there was chaos. Nancy and David Landers rushed to their daughters’ room, where they were able to wake Susan, then 14, and also grab Lisa, who was 7, and K.C., 4. The parents led the daughters back to their bedroom, and Susan was urged to step out of the window onto an eave. The room grew black with smoke, and the father lost sight of his wife and two youngest daughters.
As Nancy screamed “I’ve got to stay with the kids!” she urged David to step out onto the same eave with Susan. David Landers never saw his wife and two youngest girls alive again. Firefighters found their bodies in the bedroom near the window. They also found the Landers’ three other sons, Davey, 13; Billy, 12; and Kevin, 9, dead in their bedroom.
“I remember being grabbed and opening my eyes and knowing it was dark,” recalled Susan. “I was put out the window. The bedroom had a 3-foot ledge, a roof outside of the window. I remember just standing on the roof just yelling for help and the only other recollection that I have is that I could hear my sisters crying inside for a very short time.
“I told myself ‘I have to get down from here,’ so I shimmied myself over to the corner of the roof and jumped on the roof of the sunporch and then I jumped to the ground from there.”
Neighbors who were at the scene told the family that when firefighters arrived, David Landers was still on the eave, attempting to enter the inferno, and calling, “Nancy! Nancy!”
Firefighters extended a ladder up onto the eave, and forced David to come down to the ground.
Today, Mike Landers, 59, one of the three siblings who survived the fire, lives in Chelmsford and works as a real estate appraiser. He could not be reached for comment.
More than 500 miles south of her hometown of Wilmington, Janis Jaquith sat in her house in Virginia and pored over the facts from the case. Jaquith is married to Harry Landers and has thought about the fire for decades. In recent years, though, she’s made the case her top priority, interviewing family members, neighbors, and classmates and asking Bradbury and Neville to reopen the file. She’s hoping that someone steps forward and explains what happened that night.
Harry Landers, who is now 61 and works as an insurance agent – like his father – said he has no proof that the fire was set. As a teenager, he played bass in a local band called The Lost Generation, and recently remembered that in 1969, prior to the fire, the same “person of interest” had asked to become the manager of his band, a request that Harry rejected some 44 years ago. He said police never spoke to him after the fire about the man or his approach to him.
“I’d like to have an answer. I’d like to have knowledge. I don’t know that it would change anything,” Harry Landers said. “For 40 years I assumed it was a horrible accident and I could live with that. Now I’m thinking that might not be the case, and I want something more.”