It’s been nine years, but firefighters are no closer to solving the deadly 206 Division St. fire than they were the day it happened.
The fire killed six people, five of them children, making it the deadliest fire in Schenectady in at least the past 30 years. Only the children’s parents escaped.
Firefighters said it is the most serious unsolved fire they know of in Schenectady’s history.
“That, to my mind, is The One,” said Deputy Chief Scott Doherty. “That magnitude of loss of life, and all those kids … we would love to know what happened.”
If the fire was set, the firestarter might have died in the house, he said.
Firefighters never found a cause for the fire. They’ve officially left it open as “undetermined.”
Usually, undetermined means they think it’s arson but can’t prove it, Doherty said. But this case is harder than that.
“We are just unable to definitively prove, one way or the other, whether it was arson or not,” he said.
He hasn’t given up, though.
“There are cases of crimes being solved years later,” he said. “It’s an open case. If we got any information, we’d certainly look at it.”
The department has opened a confidential tip line for fires at 382-1199. But they haven’t gotten tips on the Division Street case in years.
There had been several small fires set in the neighborhood in the days leading up to the deadly blaze. Three were house fires; one was set in a Dumpster. But no connection was ever found between those fires and the Division Street fire.
According to homeowner Nancy Self, she and her boyfriend woke up Aug. 7 to the smell of smoke. Self said she ran into the hallway from her bedroom and shouted for her children. But the smoke was so overpowering she had to go back to her bedroom to gasp for air.
Asleep in the nearby rooms were Self’s four children, her infant grandson and her eldest daughter’s boyfriend. Autopsies later revealed they all died from smoke inhalation.
Self and her boyfriend, Kenneth Ketter, said they went into the hallway a second time and tried to get to the children’s bedrooms, but couldn’t make it through the smoke.
Self jumped out her second-story bedroom window to escape, according to neighbors. They did not know how Ketter had gotten out, and news reports from the time did not describe it.
Ketter said after he got out, he saw that the porch was on fire. He told police he was sure the fire was intentionally set on the porch, but firefighters could not find evidence showing where the fire started,
They sent material to the state police lab for testing, including materials that could have been used to start the fire and computer records. Detectives interviewed neighbors and collected raw video footage from every television station that covered the fire, in hopes of finding some detail that could lead them to an arsonist.
The state Office of Fire Prevention and Control and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also investigated. No one found a cause.
Self and Ketter collected about $7,000 in the first few weeks from fundraisers intended to help bury the children. However, the funeral home eventually sued them for nonpayment. Daly Funeral Home said they never received any of the money donated for funeral expenses and alleged in court that Self spent the money herself.
In response, Self’s ex-husband, Elijah Self, paid the entire bill.
Elijah Self also put the house on the market, saying he hoped to sell it and avoid a $10,000 demolition bill. But the house never sold, and the city declared the house abandoned in 2007.
Elijah Self said in 2005 insurance claims were still being worked out. The insurance didn’t pay until 2007, and the Selfs used it to pay off their mortgage four months before the house was taken by the city.
There wasn’t enough money to also cover repairing the house, they said. And Elijah Self said he could never bear to live in the house where his children died.
Killed in the fire were all three Self boys, Elijah, 15, Bryan, 13, and Scott, 8. In the bedroom next to them, new parents Nancy Self, 17, and Vincent Manning, 22, died with their 7-month-old son Vincent Jr.