Fatal house fire stuns neighbors

Details about homeowners emerge; identities of six victims still unconfirmed

By Ray Legendre and Erin Middlewood

Published:

Updated: April 25, 2011, 9:37 PM

 

As arson investigators dug through the rubble of Vancouver’s deadliest fire in a half-century Monday, residents of Northeast 13th Circle in Vancouver questioned how such a horrific event could happen in their quiet neighborhood.

But details about the Easter morning fire at 15304 N.E. 13th Circle, as well as the homeowners’ tumultuous relationship over the past year, have begun to surface.

Police and fire officials have not released the victims’ names, ages, or genders. Autopsy findings from the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office will not be available until Wednesday, Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said.

The blaze is believed to be one of Vancouver’s deadliest residential fires on record. Fire and police officials were unclear when the city’s deadliest fire occurred, but the Landerholm History of Vancouver revealed seven people were killed in a dormitory fire in the Hudson House at the Kaiser Shipyards on Nov. 13, 1942.

The fire is being investigated as arson. But Kapp said investigators do not believe an arson suspect is at large.

Bankruptcy filings show Tuan Dao and Lori Dao lived in the house. Their neighbor, Kathy Larsen, briefly spoke with Lori Dao via phone around 3:15 a.m. Sunday. Lori Dao was not at the house when the fire started. A source said the family’s oldest daughter also is alive.

Court papers from September 2010 also indicate the couple have six children, ages 6 to 12.

Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman Carol Fenstermacher confirmed none of the couple’s children attended school Monday. The four youngest switched from Hearthwood Elementary School to Harmony Elementary School six weeks ago. The oldest two went to Pacific Middle School.

Based on the children’s address, the Evergreen School District has made grief counselors available to its students at those three schools, Fenstermacher said. The district has not received official notification who died in the fire, she added.

Under overcast skies on Monday, investigators with the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Fire Arson Investigation Team and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, among others, completed processing and collection of evidence from the charred wreckage. The home’s rooms were unrecognizable. The roof and walls had collapsed, leaving rubble piled on the ground.

Yellow police tape blocked off the area in front of the Dao’s home. Law enforcement and fire department vehicles were parked along the street, as were television trucks. Meanwhile, a white Toyota sat idle in their driveway.

“This stuff just doesn’t happen here,” the couple’s neighbor, Jon Himes, said, describing the fire’s aftermath as “absolutely terrifying and gut-wrenching.”

Surveillance footage shot from the outside of Himes’ home showed a white Toyota car driving down the street and then turning left, presumably into the Dao’s driveway, at 12:38 a.m. Sunday. Around an hour later, Himes’ grainy surveillance footage showed a bright light reflecting off the neighborhood’s homes, and then people running into the streets to see what was happening.

“Really, my heart just skipped a beat,” Himes said, describing his reaction to the video. “I’m the last person to see this man alive.”

Police did not confirm that Tuan Dao was inside the house when the fire started.

The couple’s neighbors said they did not know them well, but had heard rumors that they were getting divorced.

The Daos filed for bankruptcy last year with $158,000 in credit card debt, according to court records. The paperwork also disclosed $2,000 in gambling losses. They owed $262,000 on the home that burned. The home was valued at $179,000.

The couple owned a house at 9102 N.E. 44th Court in Vancouver that was foreclosed upon in July 2010.

The bankruptcy filings reported that Lori Dao was working for US Bank and Tuan Dao for FedEx.

Himes noted he “kept tabs” on the couple after police interviewed him about Tuan Dao’s finances. His soon-to-be stepson rode the bus with the Dao’s young children. But otherwise, they did not interact.

According to bankruptcy documents, the Dao’s children are two daughters, 12 and 7, and four sons, 11, 6, and 9-year-old twins.

Neighbor Samol Orm occasionally played basketball with Tuan Dao at a local fitness club. He saw the man shooting alone one day and asked if he could play.

“He was kind of a quiet guy,” Orm said, noting he did not know Dao’s name. “He was nice.”

Orm reacted with a touch of sadness and astonishment as he asked another person to confirm details of the fire.

“I feel sad about their family,” the 56-year-old said. “I don’t know what the problem was in their family.”

Fellow neighbor, Jim Ruebsamen, recalled seeing Tuan Dao walking to the bus stop with his children some mornings. There was no sign of trouble. As a whole, the neighborhood consists of families, but few children, he noted.

Ruebsamen likened the loud noise that proceeded the fire to a car crash. When his wife, Janet, looked out the window, she saw bright flames shooting 30 feet into the air.

On Sunday, neighbors learned two people perished inside the house. Upon waking Monday morning, they learned six had been confirmed dead.

“It’s really a mystery to us,” Ruebsamen said.