CARBONDALE — Sunday, Dec. 6, 1992, should have marked the end of a carefree weekend of holiday celebration.
On Wednesday, Carla Coppi recalled the Lights Fantastic parade the night before the tragic Pyramid Apartments fire. With pride, she'd watched members of the International Student Council march alongside “a giant metal globe carrying lighted candles, symbolizing peace on earth.”
Coppi, who was assistant director of International Student Services at the time, was awakened hours later by a phone call from her boss; he asked her to join him at the Pyramid Apartments at 504 S. Rawlings St.
“It was a very cold night, and thick smoke hung in the air over Rawlings Street,” Coppi said. “Forever etched in my mind’s eye will be the vision of the frozen columns of ice covering the charred remains of the apartment building. I knew immediately from the expressions on the faces of the firemen that students had perished.”
Five SIU students died in the fire; four were international students. Those killed were: Cheng Teck Wong, 23, of Malaysia; Ronald A. Moy, 23, of Chicago; Kimioko Ajioka, 25, of Japan; Lai Hung Tam, 23, of Hong Kong; and Mazlina Ab Wahid, 28, of Malaysia. Several others were in critical condition, some having jumped from the top floors of the building to escape the flames.
Authorities believed the fire was the result of arson, but a suspect was never identified. The Carbondale Police Department currently lists the fire as a cold case.
Coppi was among several speakers at a 25th anniversary memorial service held Wednesday afternoon near the boat dock at Campus Lake. After the fire, she said, the city and campus came together to find shelter for the displaced and to allow the injured to finish the semester.
“I have never been more proud or moved by the generosity and humanity displayed by my town and my university during those very dark days. The outpouring of kindness and support and compassion was remarkable,” Coppi said.
“These students came from around the world to find their path at SIU,” said SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno. “We honor them for their courage and vision to seek an education so far from home. We remember them, because they did not get to see their vision fulfilled, and because any loss to the SIU family is a loss to each and every one of us.”
Carbondale Mayor John “Mike” Henry took a moment to honor the first responders present and said the international student community has the city’s “continued commitment and support.”
“One of the most important purposes of this memorial services is to remember not only those students who died in the fire, but to also reflect on the lives of our students, their parents, and those within communities around the world whose lives were forever changed that morning 25 years ago today,” Henry said.
After the service, Jeff Doherty, a current Carbondale City Council member who served as city manager from 1992 to 2008, said the city toughened its fire codes in response to the apartment-complex blaze, primarily by disallowing wood paneling, which helped the Pyramid fire spread quickly.
“(The Pyramid fire) brought to light what was there and the need to change,” Doherty said.
Carbondale Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said the department still has a strong commitment to resolving the case.
“You certainly don’t want to put odds on your ability to successfully resolve an incident, especially one that happened so long ago, but some of the irony associated with that is that there are still several of us that remain at the police department who are in leadership positions that keep that case alive,” Grubbs said.
Grubbs was among the three patrol officers who responded to the fire at the time and continue to serve in the police department.
“Obviously all the first responders, once we saw the significance of what was occurring that night and those who were desperately trying to escape the smoke and the flames — it’s one of those moments in life that you still have vivid memories of and hope that tragedies like that don’t ever occur again,” Grubbs said.
He said people could still be out there, either in the U.S. or in other countries, who have information pertaining to the fire.
“Even if they don’t realize the significance of that information, we would simply call upon them to provide (it) to us, to help us get to a point where we can resolve an incident as tragic as this one was,” Grubbs said.