Editor's Note: The following was written by Janis Jaquith, a 1970 Wilmington High School graduate. Janis is searching for answers in the fatal 1969 fire that killed six members of her husband Harry's family. For more on this story, read Patch's story that ran on Tuesday.
Just after 3 a.m., members of the Landers family awoke to find their house engulfed in flames. Residing in the house were David and Nancy Landers, their eight children, and David’s cousin, Joseph Casey. Within minutes, Nancy Landers, along with five of her children, were dead. This happened on September 26, 1969.
At the time, the fire was labeled “electrical,” with the nature of the electrical fault unspecified. In 2011, at the request of family members, fire officials reviewed available scene information. That recent analysis, along with witness interviews, raises questions about the origin and cause of the fire. The 1969 conclusion that the fire was electrical in nature may well be inaccurate.
Further, there may have been two points of ignition. If a fire is accidental, chances are that there will be a single place where it starts. If a fire is intentionally set, there may be more than one spot where the arsonist has set fire to the structure.
Following the Landers tragedy, there were rumors that a young Wilmington man had claimed responsibility for starting the fire. There were also rumors that the young man had been brought in for questioning.
Susan Landers recalls being called out of class at WHS by a pair of Wilmington police officers, and questioned about any relationship she may have had with this individual. There had been no relationship, and that was the last time Susan spoke with the police about the fire.
The Wilmington Police Department records that might clarify this part of the puzzle are missing.
Following the fire, the family resided for several months in a trailer located in the family’s back yard. David Landers, who died in 2010, recounted to family members that one night he smelled gasoline and went outside the trailer to investigate. Someone had attempted to set fire to the trailer. There were twisted-up pages of a newspaper under the trailer, soaked in gasoline and set alight.
David was able to stamp out the fire before any damage was done. He reported that he found an empty gasoline can nearby. The following morning, he said that he called the police, and that a police officer was sent to the scene. David told family members that the officer said, “A tragedy like this brings out the crazies.” No connection was made between the house fire and the trailer fire.
Additionally, during August of 1968, the Landers family home was broken into while they were away on vacation. A handgun was stolen. The police were brought in, but no arrests were made.
This fatal fire happened 43 years ago, but the memories remain vivid. Not only for the surviving Landers family, but for everyone who lived in or near Wilmington, Massachusetts at that time.
Six people lost their lives that night: a 37-year-old mother, Nancy Landers, and five of her children; Davey, 13; Billy, 12; Kevin, 9; Lisa, 7; and K.C., just 4 years old.
In order to solve the mystery of how this fire started, the Landers family, along with the Wilmington Fire Department and the Wilmington Police Department, need the assistance of those who recall this tragedy.
If you have any information that may relate to the fatal house fire, the attempted trailer fire, or the burglary, you are urged to contact the family at LandersTips@gmail.com, or contact the Wilmington Police Department at 978-658-7988 x246.