The Night the Killers Burned Their Home
“THE crash of window glass and a roar jolted me straight up in bed,” Jeannette Thomas was saying.
“The door to the hall was open and I saw that wall of light bursting from the living room. I screamed and struck out so hard that James sprang up shouting out of his deep sleep. We ran into the hall and the smoke struck us—so hot and black it gagged and smothered . . .”
“It was acrid,” her husband James broke in. “Must have been the cheapest gasoline—maybe mixed with kerosene. The children couldn’t live two seconds if they breathed it.”
The killers had hurled three five-gallon cans of fuel into the living room. That’s where the Thomas’ eighteen-year-old daughter had been watching television; the four younger children already had gone to bed.
There wasn’t a sound from the living room, and there was no possible way to get there through the smoke and fumes. “We headed for the stairs—the three young girls were up there,” James explained.
However, the heat and the smoke were already boiling down, driving them back. They ran down the hall, and, at the turn, Jeannette went left into the kitchen and James went right into the oldest daughter’s room, hoping that maybe she was there—but no. “I could feel my hair singeing and my eyes felt on fire,” James remembers, “and I knew that one deep breath would be my last.”
At that moment James crashed a window with his fist and dived head first into an explosion of fumes. Immediately he was on his feet and running toward the rear of the house.
In the kitchen, Jeannette was holding her breath, wrenching at the doorknob, forgetting the latch bolt. “I heaved against the door,” she said, “and it was so hot that it peeled the skin off my arm.” At the last desperate moment she fumbled the latch open and, as the door exploded open, something whooshed by her—one of the dogs.
James: “I saw her staggering across the back porch. I grabbed her. She was screaming the children’s names. I was too. But there was no way to climb to the upper story. You could hear fire crackling and the house was ablaze all over.”
“Get Steven out through the garage!” Jeannette cried.
As they rushed into the garage, James stumbled over a gasoline can, still full. “Someone is burning us out!” he shouted.
Already he was throwing his weight against the locked door to Steven’s room, and his wife was throwing her weight against him. It collapsed, but a wall of flame and smoke hurled them back. It was not possible for a mortal to enter.
Outside at the back window, James clawed the metal jalousies out of their casings with his bare hands. He reached inside and felt the smoldering bedcovers, but twelve-year-old Steven was not there.
In absolute hysteria they circled the house, screaming the children’s names—Jeannette, Cynthia, Steven, Karen, Allison. The arsonists had drenched the front of the house, even their Cadillac sitting in front—everything was a waving sheet of flame.
“I saw car lights coming up the driveway,” James recalls. “‘Our children are burning up inside,’ I screamed. The man said that they would go for help.”
The holocaust continued roaring. Nothing was to escape alive except the two of them and the one dog. “They found him crying in the woods a day later,” Jeannette said. “They were good dogs, all three. It had rained and turned cool that day, and I said, ‘Bring the dogs inside.’ If I hadn’t done that, they would have warned us.”
The Monroe, Georgia, fire department had arrived, as well as the sheriff. Firemen were milling. A deputy was moaning, “Oh, my God!” An ambulance came, and James and Jeannette were led away.
Who Did This and Why?
Ten days later Jeannette was still in Athens General Hospital. The first-degree burns covering her face left the skin dotted with tiny blisters. Her left upper arm wore a huge poultice of emollients through which new skin was surfacing from the second-degree burns. James had escaped physical injury.
Walton County was still shaken by the tragedy. News media, local and state officials were asking, ‘Who did this and why?’
“They Left New York City to Avoid All the Crime,” read a headline in the Gwinnett Daily News. “James Thomas Sr. moved his family here in June to escape crime in New York City and to improve the health of his wife. Friday he buried five of his children, the innocent victims in an apparent gangland arson.”
The Atlanta Journal reported: “The Thomases are black people who rented a house about three miles east of Monroe with a fair number of rural white folks living around them. But there was no antagonism toward the family, Thomas said. The investigators agreed.”
The paper added: “What interested the investigators . . . was that the owner of the house owned another house, a vacant one, that burned two hours later in adjacent Barrow County.”
Both houses were owned by a woman whose husband sometime previously had been murdered after he was issued a subpoena to testify in a case. Another member of her family was said to be a convicted moonshiner. Apparently it was to come as a shock to newcomers like the Thomases that gang-style crime flourished even in the rurals of northern Georgia.
So evidently the Thomas family had fallen victims to some feuding faction. As one writer observed: “They had only lived in the wrong house at the wrong time.”
“I Don’t—I Won’t Hate”
One of the hardest ordeals that night was to notify the three older married children back in New York. Twenty-two-year-old James, Jr., recalls: “You are awakened in midmorning and told that five members of your family are burned to death—at first I went wild. Then I thought of my sister Helene, eight months pregnant, and how to tell her.”
Next day a county sheriff and members of the press watched James, Jr., as he viewed the ruins. John York of the Atlanta Journal wrote:
“Though it had been about 12 hours since the fire was first reported, tiny flames still leaped into the sunlight where a section of wall still stood. Occasionally, the distinct odor of burnt flesh wafted through the breeze and down toward the road where bystanders stood through the day.”
Once young Thomas struck out at the charred timbers. “They saw me do it and thought I was a New Yorker who had come down for revenge,” young James explained. “But later, in the sheriff’s office, I told them that I had struck out, not in anger, but in frustration. I don’t—I won’t hate people who did this.” His mother concurred.
Faith and Brotherhood That Astonishes
Funeral spectators stood in a kind of awe when James, Sr., and his remaining children did not break down in hysterical grief and despair. The hysteria had ceased after that first hour of the holocaust. “They could not understand that our faith is real,” the father explained. It was like the incredulity of the people in the apostle Paul’s day when he exclaimed: “Why is it judged unbelievable among you men that God raises up the dead?”—Acts 26:8.
James, Jr., wondered, “If people in the churches who say they believe their children who die are in heaven—if they really believe that—why do they despair in grief?”
The mother nodded in full agreement. “The tears I shed now are from human emotion, not from the sorrow others would suffer who have no hope. By drawing close to Jehovah I receive the assurance He gives in his Word the Bible. I know now how great my family really is. Not just children and grandchildren, but hundreds and thousands of Christian brothers and sisters. They come and they call and they write. They let me know that they feel hurt as we feel hurt.”
Her husband added: “It is true what Jesus said about gaining brothers and sisters by the hundredfold.”—Mark 10:30.
Even in the early morning hours following the fire, a constant stream of Jehovah’s Witnesses from near and far began trickling into the corridors of the hospital. The management had never seen anything like it. A reporter marveled: “Half are black, half are white, it makes no difference, it is no concern, except that some of their own have suffered.” The astonished hospital authorities made an unprecedented allowance for visitors to call at any hour around the clock. “It seems the best therapy for Mrs. Thomas,” a head nurse explained.
People Poured Out Their Hearts
“My doctor stood here with tears in his eyes,” Jeannette explained. “He was thinking of his own children sleeping upstairs in their Cape Cod house. He arranged for a second bed to be brought in so my husband could stay here throughout. He said not to worry if our hospitalization insurance does not cover everything—he would take care of it himself.”
An apartment near other Witnesses in Monroe was arranged for the Thomases. Within the first week so much clothing and furniture was brought in that there was no place to put it all. Local church and charity organizations asked if they could help. The Pilot Club of Monroe had its members on the streets collecting a fund for the family. Teachers and students in schools where the Thomas children attended raised funds. A Fund for the Thomas family was set up at the National Bank of Walton County in Monroe. Contributions poured in from as far away as Kansas and New Mexico.
Feeling of Loss, but a Sure Hope
Of course, there have to be the low moments. “Nighttime is the hardest,” Jeannette confessed. “When I start to go to sleep I begin to live the horror over again. I won’t take narcotics. But a Witness brought in a tape recorder and a whole briefcase full of tapes. I go to sleep listening to talks from our Christian assemblies.’’
Sleep was not her husband’s problem. “It’s at mealtimes that I get low. At that house our children were the happiest they ever were in their lives. It was the first house we ever lived in. They mowed the hay all around and turned it into a lawn. But at mealtimes, that’s when the children were the most beautiful. You never heard such a hubbub.”
The Thomases look forward to such happy times again, right here on earth, when their children are brought back to life again. Jesus Christ said: “The hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out.” (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15) And the Bible describes what life will be like at that time: “And God himself will be with them. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3, 4) These are Bible promises in which the Thomases have complete confidence.
Such a sure hope is what makes possible a wholesome adjustment in the face of tragedy.