Keokuk, IA, Dec. 22, 1999 – In its 120-year history, the Keokuk Fire Department had never experienced a line-of-duty death. That all changed, however, on Dec. 22, when an incident that traumatized the community of 13,000 people claimed the lives of three Keokuk firefighters and three children.
The Keokuk Fire Department was dispatched at 8:24 A.M. to a fire in a 130-year-old, two-story, balloon-frame building that had been converted into three apartments. Melissa Cooper, 26, had moved into one of the apartments three months earlier with her four children. She was asleep at 8:30 A.M. when her 4-year-old son, Jacob, screamed that there was a fire. Cooper went to the hallway, where she was greeted by pitch-black smoke. She and Jacob escaped from the house with the help of neighbors.
Keokuk firefighters were successful in rescuing Cooper’s nearly 2-year-old twins, Robert and Rebecca, from the fire, but the babies died a short time later. They re-entered the structure to search for Cooper’s 7-year-old daughter, Jessica, but were caught in a deadly flashover, according to Keokuk Fire Chief Mark Wessel.
Killed in the fire were:
- Assistant Chief Dave McNally, 48, a 25-year veteran of the department. He was married and had three children.
- Firefighter Jason Bitting, 29, who had been on the department for 61¼2 years. He is survived by his wife and three children.
- Firefighter Nate Tuck 39, a 41¼2-year member of the department who had a wife and two children.
Jessica was found dead in the arms of one of the two firefighters on the second floor. The body of the third firefighter was found on the first floor.
State Fire Marshal Roy Marshall established that the cause of the fire was food left on a kitchen stove.
The Keokuk Fire Department has 19 full-time firefighters.
A memorial service that was attended by 4,000 people, including firefighters from across the country, was held on Dec. 26, and their funerals took place the following day. Among the firefighters attending the memorial service were six from Worcester, MA, who had buried six of their own earlier in the month.
According to the Quad City Times newspaper, Keo-kuk – situated on the Mississippi River where Iowa, Illinois and Missouri meet — has been the site of some of the deadliest fires in Iowa. The worst fire in the community’s history occurred in November 1965, when a crushed gas line exploded, igniting a fire that killed 21 people at a square dance in the Iowa National Guard Armory. In 1994, five children and two adults died in a fire; five people died in a 1987 fire; and four were killed in a 1988 blaze.