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Published: 4/14/2012 | Updated: 10/21/2014

By RODNEY HART
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Chris Bichsel and Demond Dade, lieutenants with the Quincy Fire Department, stand silently in front of what used to be 428 N. Seventh. They find it hard to believe it has been five years since one of the most horrific fires in Quincy history took place on this very spot.

Dade and Bichsel responded at about 3 a.m. on April 15, 2007, to the residence. The house was fully engulfed in flames. Firefighters found five young children dead in the upstairs portion of the home. Much later, the young man who intentionally set the fire pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

The story stunned a community and made national headlines. And the memories are still fresh.

"To tell you the truth, even when we drove by the house or had runs in that area for several months later, it still made me sick to my stomach, just thinking about it," Bichsel says. "I have kids; they were small back then. If anything like that had happened to them, it would just devastate me."

The children and their parents had moved into the house just before the fire. They had previously lived next to Dade on Elm Street.

"I knew the older children," Dade says. "It was already in a panic mode, but to find out who they were and that I knew them, that made it even worse."

The fire was set by Zachary Meeks after he had a run-in with family members of the children at the Casino Starlight in Quincy. Keith and Geanetta Clark lived at 428 N. Seventh and had left their five children, ages 10 and under, alone in the house.

Authorities said Meeks decided to get even by splashing gas in the front and back of the house, then setting it on fire. Twenty-six years old at the time of the fire, Meeks pleaded guilty eight months later and was sentenced to five life terms in prison, without the chance of parole.

THE FIRE

When Bichsel and Dade arrived with Engine 2 and other firefighters just minutes after the fire was reported, family members were in back trying to enter the flame-engulfed house. Bischel and Dade managed to get inside from a southside entrance on the first floor and encountered severe heat and flames. They poured water on the fire inside and proceeded upstairs.

In one bedroom on the west side they found the bodies of three children. The bodies of the other two were found by other firefighters in a bathroom.

"The heat was so intense, there was just no way anybody could have survived that," Bichsel says.

Dead were Kendall Edwards, 10, Althea Clark, 9, Cameron Clark, 5, Khalil Clark, 3, and Kejuan Clark, 5 months.

Dade says at one point there was a commotion in the front of the house. The father of the five children, Keith Clark, was trying to get inside. He managed to actually get in through the front door, but he quickly came back out with his clothes on fire and suffered serious burns.

"It's something you try to forget, but there's no way," Bichsel says. "I can still picture it, like it happened this morning."

As the sun rose on a beautiful early spring day, smoke still drifted from the charred two-story brick house. Investigators combed the wreckage and collected evidence, and neighbors were interviewed by police. The house was deemed a total loss and was bulldozed to the ground a few months later, and a vacant lot with remnants of a memorial remain.

THE FUNERAL

Nine days after the fire, a massive funeral for the five children took place at Baldwin Intermediate School. Cameron Clark attended Washington School, while Althea Clark and Kendall Edwards were fourth-graders at Baldwin South and previously attended Washington. Khalil Clark had been at the school's kindergarten roundup the week before he died.

The five caskets were on the Baldwin auditorium stage, with a large photo of each child in front of the caskets. About 1,000 people attended.

Baldwin Principal Paul Sanders said teachers and staff were concerned about how the students would be respond. It turned out having the funeral at the school was the right decision.

"It was very difficult for a lot young people," Sanders says. "When you are 9 or 10 and you know somebody who dies in a fire, you think that can happen to you. People are fearful of death and dealing with death is very difficult at a young age."

Sanders remembers the hearses pulling into the school parking lot, an overflow area for the crowd in the Round Room, and family members gathering in private in a side music room.

"This wasn't just a school issue. It was a community issue that brought everybody together," he said. "Everybody in town who could attend the funeral tried to attend that funeral."

Firefighters filled the back rows of the auditorium. Almost every pastor of every area church attended. There were songs from choirs, powerful preaching from Rev. Orville Jones, and prayers for healing.

The children were then taken to Chicago, where Keith and Geanetta have previously lived, and buried in a private ceremony.

ZACHARY MEEKS

A few hours after the fire, a 911 call was made from a Quincy resident named Zachary Meeks. He claimed he'd been beaten up with a gun, and that the gun had gone off. Meeks was picked up for questioning, and he sat in a Quincy Police Department interview room at the Eighth and Maine headquarters with QPD Detective Adam Yates.

There had been evidence developed that the fire was caused by arson, and Meeks was a suspect because he'd been in an altercation with members of the Clark family at the nightclub before the fire was set.

Yates got the call to come in at 4:30 a.m. He knew Meeks well from prior encounters on the street -- Meeks had served a few years in prison for an earlier drug conviction and had more than a few ordinance violations and city tickets for minor infractions.

After some back and forth about him being beaten, questions were directed about the fire, and it didn't take long for Meeks to confess he had set it intentionally by pouring gas in the front and back of the building.

"He definitely wanted to harm someone," says Yates, now a QPD sergeant. "He may not have known kids were in there. Initially I believed him when he said he didn't know, but later we had information that he did know.

"Who knows what was going through his mind, but he should have known that someone would get hurt, because he set fire to both doors."

What really sealed Meeks' fate was the fact that when people told him what had happened and what he had done, he allegedly replied, "F--- those kids."

"That," Yates says, "is what got him to confess."

Meeks' first court appearances featured angry family members of the victims, heavy security and rampant speculation about what had happened. Meeks pleaded not guilty and the case appeared headed for trial. But out of the blue, Meeks decided to plead guilty in December 2007 to five counts of first-degree murder.

Family members said Meeks had bipolar issues and would have never intentionally tried to hurt anybody.

His attorney, Public Defender Ed Downey, agrees.

"That was quite a case," Downey says. "When you talk about somebody who really wasn't a criminal and had limited intelligence .... they (the Clarks) were harassing him at the Starlight, and he ended up burning their house down. I don't think he would have done it in a million years if he knew somebody was in it.

"That was a very difficult case and there was only one penalty for it, and he accepted it."

State's Attorney Jon Barnard still had the death penalty on the table when Meeks pleaded guilty.

"He did what he did in terms of a plea and sentence because he felt that this was the only way he could atone for what he had done," Barnard said. "In the back of my mind it was possibly a capital case. But he pleaded and he did it so quickly in a relative sense for a murder case of this magnitude, that I think it was a matter of conscience on his part."

Meeks is serving his life sentence in Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. Family members urged him to file an appeal after his sentencing, but court records show he failed to file an appeal in time allotted by state statute, and there are no pending motions in his case.

"He knew what he had done was wrong," Yates says. "That showed some ownership in his participation and him understanding that this was his responsibility and that he was the one who caused this."

THE AFTERMATH

Things went from bad to worse for the father of the children, Keith Clark. He was hospitalized for burns and smoke inhalation after he tried to enter the house, but he wasn't in long and was at most of Meeks' initial court appearances. A few months after the funeral, he was charged in Cook County with driving under the influence and causing a crash resulting in the death of a person in the other vehicle, and he's now serving a nine-year prison sentence.

Geanetta Clark pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment. Court testimony included evidence Geanetta left the house that night to pick up her sister at the Starlight Casino, since she'd been involved in a fight. Geanetta now lives in Chicago.

Bichsel and Dade went through critical stress debriefing, and they talk about the fire, but still struggle with the memories.

Dade says Keith Clark used to come up to him and ask him what he found when Dade went into the second floor of the burning building. About a year ago, Dade says he ran into Geanetta Clark and she gave him a big hug. He keeps photos of the children in his Central Fire Station locker.

Dade says he was angry at Zachary Meeks. "If I'd walked in on him on the street, I probably would have hurt him. I felt that way, anyway," Dade says.

A week or so after the fire, Dade was at Walter Hammond Daycare, where his wife worked. A little boy came up to him and asked for help drawing a flower. Dade cheerfully obliged, and the little boy then gave him the picture.

He asked who the little boy was.

"That's Zachary Meeks' son," his wife said.

Dade says he broke down in tears, realizing he felt like harming the father of the boy, a boy who was an innocent victim.

"That," he says, "helped me cool down."

The picture now hangs in his locker, next to the photos of the young children who perished five years ago Sunday.

-- rhart@whig.com/221-3370


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