December 24, 1945
Fayetteville, West Virginia
Five children from the Sodder family die in or disappear following a house fire
On Christmas Eve, George and Jennie Sodder awoke to find their home engulfed in flames. They brought their 2-year-old daughter Sylvia, whose crib was in her parents’ room, from the house, and three other children (John, 23; Marion, 17; George Jr., 16) were able to escape the house on their own. George attempted to enter the burning building to rescue the other five children (Maurice, 14; Martha, 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5) still trapped within.
Several problems arose in the attempt to rescue the children. A ladder George always kept near the house, which he intended to use to reach the upper level of the home, was missing. His coal trucks, which had been operational the day before, were not functional and George was unable to drive them near the home to climb. Marion ran to a neighbor’s to call the fire department but no operator could be reached, and another neighbor who saw the fire attempted to call the fire department to the same end. Eventually, the neighbor physically located the fire chief who initiated a “phone tree” in which one fire fighter called another. Seven hours after the fire began, the firefighters arrived. By the point, the home was little more than a charred skeleton. The flames had extinguished after 45 minutes, but the remains of the building smoldered until the firefighters’ arrival.
The Sodders assumed their children had perished in the flames, but their remains were not found in the rubble. Further investigation determined the fire was caused by faulty wiring, though Jennie remembered hearing a bang followed by a rolling noise on the roof about an hour before smoke filled her room.
For years after the fire, tips involving the missing children, now grown adults, poured in from across the country. The Sodders put up a billboard with the children’s names and faces, hoping for additional leads. George died in 1969 and Jennie in 1989; after Jennie’s death, the billboard was removed. Sylvia Sodder is the only living family member from the night of the fire, and remains vigilant in keeping the memory of her siblings alive.
- Abbott, Karen. “The Children Who Went Up In Smoke.” Smithsonian. December 25, 2015. Accessed: December 24, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-children-who-went-up-in-smoke-172429802/
- Michael Newton, The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Crimes. New York: Facts on File, 2004
- “Five of 10 Children Die In Burning Home.” The San Bernardino County Sun. December 26, 1945