The day hell came to earth

Published 12:02 am Sunday, July 3, 2016

SCOTTOWN — Sgt. Steve Cartmell had just started as a road deputy for the sheriff’s office when he got a call whose memory will never leave him.

“They said the fireworks building was on fire,” Cartmell said.

By the time Cartmell and deputy John Tordiff made the half-hour ride to Scottown, the shack that housed Ohio River Fireworks was an inferno.

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“There were a lot of victims running down the driveway,” Cartmell said.

Paramedic Ray Jones who showed up at about the same time instantly went to work.

“Tordiff and I tried to get in,” he said. “We went up to the building. All we could see was fire and smoke and hear the fireworks going off.”

The two deputies tried to get in to pull out victims, but the intense heat pushed them back. All they could do was fight back those outside trying to rescue their loved ones.

That was July 3, 1996 and the 20 years that have passed haven’t erased any of the memories of that holocaust. Nine people died: Ryan Aldridge, 24, Misti Cron, 21, Shelbi Cron, 3, Candy Lee, 31, Matt Samson, 14, Floyd Tolliver, 34, Ona Tolliver, 8, Jason Wallace, 9, and Kathlene Wilks, 71. Eleven were seriously injured.

Later investigators determined the sprinkler system at the store had been turned off.

A 24-year-old from Proctorville, Todd Hall, had thrown a lighted cigarette into the shack. Why has caused speculation ever since. What is a fact is that Hall in his own way had been a victim, not of the blaze, but of an injury when he was 15 that turned him into someone with almost no ability to reason or understand his actions.

Someone pointed him out to Cartmell.

“He was sitting by a fence,” the deputy said. “Someone told me he was the one who started the fire. I took him and put him in a patrol car and put an officer on him. He didn’t say much.”

That inexplicable act of throwing a single cigarette changed forever the lives of Beth Wallace and her family. Her 9-year-old baby brother, Jason, perished in the blaze.

Wallace was 14 and had chosen to stay home to get ready for a family July 4th party set for the next day. Her mother was taking Jason to the Scottown store because the boy adored fireworks and had seen a billboard promoting Ohio River Fireworks. Just before they left the house, Jason got into his sister’s lap and gave her a hug and kiss.

“He always wanted to get sparklers and bottle rockets,” Wallace said. “When they got there, my mom said they had better selections at Fruth.”

Jason said let’s get a couple of things and get out.

Those were the last words she heard from her son as she saw Hall toss in the cigarette.

“She had him by the hand and they were at the door but my mom got pushed out,” Wallace said.

She lost her grip on her son.

When he heard what happened, Wallace’s father rushed to Scottown, only to find his wife lying on the ground waiting to be taken to a hospital.

“She had third degree burns on 46 percent of her body,” Wallace said. “They kept telling my mom they didn’t know if Jason had gotten flown to another hospital. We kept holding onto that, that he was at another hospital.”

Instead his body lay among the charred boxes of sparklers and rockets he so loved to set off.

The next day Hall was arraigned before Lawrence County Municipal Judge Donald Capper, who read out eight charges of involuntary manslaughter. Hall who seemed not to understand what was going on kept up a barrage of inane banter from saying he had to fix his hair to he needed to go to college. Richard Wolfson was named his public defender.

By the time Hall came before Common Pleas Judge Richard Walton, there was a ninth victim, Kathlene Wilks, the sister of the store’s owner. Now he was indicted on nine charges. But he would never face a jury.

“His attorney made a motion he was incompetent to stand trial and that he should be committed to determine if he could be restored to competency,” Walton said.

That never happened.

At a final hearing Walton ruled that Hall was incompetent and was placed in an Athens institution.

“He knew where he was but he couldn’t understand why he was there,” the judge said. “He wanted to go home. Why judge won’t you let me go home.”

Hall stayed institutionalized until his death in 2015.

Wallace says she had no hatred toward the man who killed her brother.

“I don’t blame him,” Wallace said. “He wasn’t mentally stable.”

For Cartmell it is tragically easy to replay that day.

“It was pretty devastating to see the loss,” he said. “I can’t comprehend what they went through and still go through every Fourth of July. It is all about those victims. It is still in my imagination.”