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Missoula's deadliest fire - 1950 Molenda family tragedy

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Following are 3 articles about the deadly Molenda fire from the Daily Missoulian – the first two from Sat. morning, January 7, 1950. The Molenda family had just experienced the most tragic fire in Missoula’s history with the deaths of 6 of their 12 youngsters. The 3rd article also lists Missoula’s deadliest fires up until that time.

Tragic Morning Fire Kills Five

Seven Survive; Boy, 2, Is Badly Burned

Mr. and Mrs. Leo Molenda, grief-stricken parents of five children killed by a tragic early-morning fire Thursday, joined the remnants of their shattered family Friday night as son, Gordon, 2, clung to life. He was in critical condition early Saturday morning at St. Patrick’s from burns received in the blaze.

Dead are five of their 12 children; Gladys 13, Stanley 10, Beverly 7, Carol 6 and Sharon (Sherry) 5, victims of a flash fire that roared through their two-story home at 218 North Second street, east.

The Molendas, accompanied by a daughter, Joyce, 19, arrived at the hospital at 9:30 Friday evening from Spokane on an airline flight financed by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. They had planned to come by train, but due to the critical condition of the son, Gordon, the Chamber arranged the flight.

Gordon, swathed in bandages in the pediatrics ward at St. Patrick hospital, was under oxygen and was being given blood transfusions. The physician said the boy had suffered burns over 80 per cent of his skin area. The hospital switchboard was swamped with persons wishing to donate blood to help the child, with 30 calls within a few minutes. The boy needed type O blood and the hospital said special trained nurses were needed.

The condition of Mr. Parrish was not considered critical by his physician but he is being kept at the hospital for treatment of second-degree burns on the backs of several fingers, and first-degree burns on his face.

The Molenda children who escaped injury in the fire are Frances, 16; Ronald, 15, Eldon, 12, and Linda, 17 months. A neighbor was taking care of them pending return of their parents.

[A third son, Bobby, age 9, also survived.]

The fire was discovered by John K. Armstrong, NP callboy who was sitting in a roundhouse office when he saw flames burst from the northeast corner of the Molenda home across the street. He called the fire department at 1:50 a. m. and then summoned other workers at the roundhouse and a dozen or so men rushed to the house in response to cries for help. Another person alerted by the commotion was Joe Molenda, an uncle of the children who lives next door.

Witnesses and members of the family said Gladys probably gave her life in an effort to save one of her younger sisters. Witnesses saw a girl come to the front door as they were trying to break it down but she was gone when they gained entry. Coroner Ralph Simmons, quoted a physician who examined the bodies as saying the children died of suffocation.

M. Parrish carried the infant, Linda, to safety. Frank Knoll, roundhouse employee, was credited by witnesses with aiding Frances to escape her bedroom window. As she was hanging from a window sill he grabbed her ankles and lowered her to the ground. Joe Molenda and Ronald fainted while trying to get out of a first-story window and fell to safety.

The other survivors made it through the front door. One girl appeared at an upstairs window but rescuers could not get her to jump. She was possibly the girl found dead after the fire at the foot of a stairway only a few feet from safety.

The fire was believed caused from an overheated kitchen range in the back of the building. Roundhouse-men agreed with surviving children that the fire started in the back of the house in the vicinity of the stove and Ronald, who is a pin setter at a bowling alley, said the stove and stove pipe were red hot when he came home from work after 1 a. m. He said he had removed fuel wood from around the stove before he retired. He said he believes the flames caught on tarpaper near the rear of the stove.

Armstrong, the callboy, said the fire was gushing from the back of the house when he first saw it and spread upward to the top of the house and then came forward to engulf the rest of the house.

There were other casualties after the fire department arrived and started to pour water on the old residence. Fireman Ora Dishman was overcome by smoke and Fireman Vernon McBride fell off the roof. Both were taken to a hospital for treatment. Dishman was released from treatment a few hours later but physicians were undecided about McBride’s injuries saying he had possible rib fractures.

Mr. and Mrs. Molenda had been gone from the home only one day – they left Thursday morning to visit the daughter, leaving Mr. Parrish with the family. The corner was able to reach them about 10 a. m. and give them word of the deaths.

After their escape the four children who lived through the fire and escaped injury were taken in and cared for at the home of Etta Lundy and Evelyn Williams, 202 North Second street, east.

Firemen worked until about 4 a. m. on the fire before leaving. The blaze was controlled after it had charred the entire interior of the building but outwardly the structure was not badly damaged except for blackened areas above windows where flames had poured out of the windows.

The Molenda family had resided in Missoula since 1945, coming here from Portland where Mr. Molenda, age 49, had been employed. Since 1945 he has been a stationary engineer, employed at the NP roundhouse.

Mr. Parrish has been working as a roundhouse laborer for the NP since October 11. Previously he had been employed at various times as a member of a bridge and building gang and as a trucker, the railway service records show.

Twelve persons were asleep in the Molenda home when tragedy struck. Bobby, 9, Gordon and James Parrish, a friend of the family caring for the 11 children in the absence of the parents, were hospitalized for burns.

Bobby was released from St. Patrick’s hospital Friday after receiving treatment for slight burns on his left ear and singed skin on his nose. Parrish is at the Northern Pacific hospital.


Parrish Tells Of Frantic Rescue Efforts

By Keith Bridenstine

“The smoke woke me, I ran to the porch and shouted for help,” James Parrish said from his hospital bed where he is being treated for burns received in a fire fatal to five children here early Friday morning.

Parrish was staying with 11 children of the Leo Molenda family while the parents were in Spokane with a daughter, Joyce, 19, his fiancé.

Sitting on the hospital bed with both hands bandaged and ointment on his face, Parrish said, “I was going to leave the house but I heard Linda, 17-month-old girl, screaming so I ran back into the house, grabbed her out of the crib and ran out of the house.

“When I went back into the house to get the baby the flames were roaring and smoke was so thick I couldn’t see. As I lifted the baby from the crib a tongue of flame struck me in the face and I thought something heavy had hit me.

“I tucked the baby under my arm and started for the door. I didn’t know where the rest of the kids were but I couldn’t see so I didn’t stop to find out,” he said.

“As I came through the door I tripped over one of the boys, Bobby, I think. He was crawling out of the house. I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out into the yard.” Bobby was one of two hospitalized for burns.

Parrish said, “I think I passed out. The next thing I knew I was hanging on the fence and someone was taking the baby out of my arms. I tried to go back into the house but the other men there stopped me. Then a car took me to the hospital.”

Parrish said he was sleeping on the ground floor. With him were five boys, Ronald, 15; Eldon, 12; Stanley, 10; Bobby, 9, and Gordon, 2. Linda was in a crib in the corner of Parrish’s bedroom.

“When I woke,” Parrish said, “I shouted at the boys. Gordon answered me and Ronald kicked out a window and jumped to safety. I don’t know what happened to Stanley but Bobby got out.”

“I knew Gordon was still in the house,” he said. “I was told the firemen found him in the corner of the room, still alive. I guess he was afraid of the smoke and flames and tried to hide in the corner.” Gordon was taken to St. Patrick’s hospital for treatment of burns and shock. His condition was reported critical late Friday evening.

Parrish said Eldon must have jumped out of a window. He was not injured. Stanley died of suffocation in a bedroom of the house.

According to Parrish, five girls, Frances, 16; Gladys, 13; Beverly, 7; Carol, 6, and Sharon, 5, were sleeping in a second floor bedroom. Frances jumped to safety. The bodies of the other four were found in the charred ruins of the house.

Parrish said, “I remember some men trying to get Gladys to jump from the second story window. She told them she would rather stay with her sisters. Someone told me the bodies of two of the girls were found near the front door on the lower floor. I don’t know how they got down that flaming stairway.”

Parrish is employed at the Northern Pacific roundhouse in Missoula. He has been working there since October 11, 1949, and since that time has lived with the Molenda family. He is engaged to marry Joyce, who is taking nurses training in Spokane.

According to Parrish, the thick smoke in the house came from burning creosote lumber used to construct one wall of the home. He said he was feeling good but that his hands hurt him a little. He will remain in Northern Pacific hospital for further treatment, hospital officials said Friday.



The article below appeared in the Daily Missoulian on Sunday, January 8, 1950


Sixth Molenda Child Dies; Mass Funeral Set Tuesday

Two-year-old Gordon Molenda gave up the fight for life Saturday afternoon and the roaring blaze which took his life became the worst tragedy in Missoula county’s recorded history of fatal fires. Plans for a mass funeral for six of the 12 Molenda children, victims of a nighttime fire in their north side home, were completed Saturday.

Services for the six children, Gladys, 13; Stanley, 10; Beverly, 7; Carol, 6; Sharon, 5, and Gordon will be at the First Methodist church at 2 p. m. Tuesday. Rev. M. J. Wilcox will officiate and burial will be in Missoula cemetery. Squire-Simmons-Carr mortuary is in charge of arrangements.

Gladys, Stanley, Beverly, Carol and Sharon died of suffocation Friday morning in the burning home of their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Leo Molenda. Gordon died at 2:15 o’clock Saturday of burns received in the fire.

Survivors include the parents; three brothers, Ronald, Eldon and Bobby, and three sisters, Joyce, Frances and Linda.

The four children who escaped the fire without injury, Frances, 16; Ronald, 15; Eldon, 12 and Linda, 17 months, and Bobby, who was released from a hospital Friday after being treated for burns received in the fire, are staying at the home of a neighbor, Etta Lundy.

Mr. and Mrs. Molenda, the parents, returned to Missoula Friday night. The Molendas, whose air trip was financed by the Missoula-Mineral counties chapter of the American Red Cross, were accompanied by their eldest daughter, Joyce, 19, whom they had been visiting in Spokane when the fire gutted their home at 218 North Second street, east.

James Parrish, 26, a friend of the family who was staying with the children at the time of the fire, is receiving treatment for burns at Northern Pacific hospital

The deaths of the six children of the Molenda family recalled previous multiple tragedies in Missoula county. Two other families lost five members each by fires in the last 10 years.

The more recent was the Arthur E. Larson family at Clinton, where five persons perished last July 18 in an early morning blaze. In November, 1941, five children of Mrs. Robert Perrine died in a fire at their home, 1550 South Thirteenth street.

Four persons lost their lives in a fire at the William Zoske home, 805 Cooley street, in February, 1932 at the Peter Seescholtz home up Grant creek, where two children died in October, 1933, and at the Dick Ryan home, 1336 Dickens street, in which two lives were lost in August, 1939. (This is how the paragraph appeared.)




Tragic Molenda fire kills 5 - 1/7/1950








Last Updated on Thursday, 21 December 2017 02:58