More than 30 years after a fire killed her four young children, Karen Freeman expressed her thanks that the Hamilton North End neighborhood put up a memorial marker on the site of the blaze, which now is a park with a playground.
Wiping tears from her cheeks as she sat on a bench outside the house where she lives, Freeman, 61, said the loss of her four children was so painful that she has visited their graves at Rose Hill Burial Park only a handful of times through the decades.
She lived in Florida for 23 years after the fire — it hurt too much to live in Hamilton — and has photos of the grave markers decorated with flowers. While in Florida, she regularly sent a cousin money to put flowers on the graves, and the cousin would send her photos.
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Freeman attended the dedication in October of the memorial marker, and, “I thought it was one of the sweetest things that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “The thought of them still remembering my kids.”
Freeman didn’t know most of the people beforehand who arranged for the marker, and didn’t know anything at all about it until somebody contacted her brother in Cincinnati, she said. He told her about it.
“I think it’s a good thing, because the kids who go there might ask questions,” she said, shaking with tears. “Because if they knew what happened, maybe that would teach them to not play with fire, or mess with stuff like that, that can hurt them. Because I flip out every time I see a kid get around fire.”
Playing with fire was not the cause of the blaze that happened at around 3:48 a.m. June 7, 1988. Instead, it was believed to have been caused by a box fan.
Taken that day were Freeman’s four children, Jennifer Rose Miller, almost 5; 2-year-old twins James Ryan Miller and Wesley Brian Miller; and Maryann Smith, 7. Also killed were Lee Cooper, 38; Faye Reeseman, 18; and Christopher Reeseman, 2.
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Freeman, who works at White Castle in Hamilton, said, “I thought it was very special that somebody did that — took the time out of their time to do that for my kids. I think about my kids every day.”
She looks forward to seeing them in heaven: “I believe they’re up there,” she said. “They watch out for me all the time, and I believe that in my heart.”
Casey Koelblin, a kindergarten teacher at Fairwood Elementary School who grew up in the North End, and whose students use the John R. Moser Park where the boulder and marker were placed, led the effort to memorialize the loss of five children, including Freeman’s four kids, plus two others in what was one of Hamilton’s most deadly fires. The park is the site during the summer of Art in the Park in which teacher Robin Szary and Casey Koelblin offer free children’s programs.
Koelblin, who was in first grade when the fire happened, remembers her parents talking about what happened, buying fire ladders to exit their home through windows, and running home fire drills.
Koelblin’s husband, Michael Koelblin, owns Koelblin Concrete Construction and installed the boulder with help from Dave Baker, owner of Hamilton Tool Center on B Street. They worked with the neighborhood organization RENEW-North End and Barb Cope of Kelly’s House of Love and neighborhood advocate Joanne Wallisch. They won a 17Strong micro-grant for the project.
Asked about her children, Freeman volunteered with a proud smile: “My youngest daughter was mean. She took care of herself no matter what, that one did.”
One day, when Maryann, 7, came home and said a boy had hit her, Jennifer, two years younger, “came running through the house, said, ‘Get out of the way, Sissy, me’ll go get him,’” her mom said.
The mother told her: “I think you’d better stay in here, before you get in trouble.”
Maryann loved going to school at Madison Elementary School.
“And my twins, just like any 2-year-old, they got into everything,” she said.
Freeman, who now is engaged to a Hamilton man, still has vivid memories of the fire.
“The firemen took me out,” Freeman said she was told. “They thought I was dead.”
“They had me on a stretcher and were getting ready to put me in a body bag, and somebody that I knew saw me flinch, and he told them I was still alive,” she said. “I was told that. I don’t know if it was true, or whatever.”
“I spent about a week in the hospital before I even knew my kids had died,” she said. “I was completely blind, and everything.”
She was burned across her stomach and on her hands.
“I try not to think about it,” she said, sniffling back tears. “It hurts. It’s going to hurt every day of my life.”
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