College Students Perish in Horrific Fire

The blaze started shortly before Christmas break 1992.

CARBONDALE — Kimiko Ajikoa was a 25-year-old senior marketing major at Southern Illinois University, originally from Osaka, Japan.

An aunt and uncle of Ajikoa’s had previously attended the university and helped ease her transition from Japan to Carbondale.

During college breaks, she traveled to places such as Colorado and Niagara Falls.

Her family had described her as “courageous” because of her decision to study abroad.

Ajikoa adjusted well to life on campus and had many friends. She once told her aunt that her time at college had been one of the happiest times of her life.

Unfortunately, tragedy would strike before Ajikoa could graduate.

The Tragic Events

At 1:27 a.m. on Sunday, December 6, 1992, firefighters responded to a fire alarm at The Pyramids Studio Apartments complex at 504 S. Rawlings in Carbondale.

When they arrived, flames and smoke gushed out of the building’s upper two floors’ windows and filled its hallways.

Hanounou Diallo, a blind student from Mali, awoke to a woman’s screams. The woman had jumped out of an upper-story window and broke both legs in the process. She was one of several tenants who jumped.

Diallo stayed in his room because he could not see where the fire was; however, someone soon rescued him.

Firefighters and police officers rescued several residents and pleaded with others to not jump out windows.

The badly injured were transferred to hospitals in Southern Illinois and Missouri. Unfortunately, nasty winter weather prevented helicopters from flying the injured to St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Mo., Evansville, Ind., and Paducah, Ky., which delayed victims getting medical treatment.

When firefighters eventually contained the fire, five people were dead and seven injured.

Jackson County Coroner Dr. Jerry Thurman did not conduct specific autopsies on any of the perished victims to determine if someone had killed them before the fire started.

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The south side of The Pyramids Apartments. Many students suffered critical injuries after leaping from the third floor to escape the fire. Southern Illinoisan/Ken Seeber
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One of the apartments destroyed by the fatal fire.

Arson Investigation

According to the December 9, 1992 issue of the Southern Illinoisan, “In 1991 and 1992, Carbondale police investigated 21 suspected arsons, not including The Pyramids fire. Most of the cases involved residences and a few automobiles.”

Another deadly fire occurred in the early 1970s that killed three people.

The Pyramids fire became the city’s deadliest fire in history, and the massive investigation required outside assistance.

Carbondale police requested the help of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The agency sent agents from all over the Midwest to Carbondale.

Overall, the investigation team consisted of 25 members, including four agents from the ATF’s St. Louis office, 13 members of the ATF national response team, and local and state investigators.

Fire investigators had their work cut out for them. Arsons are challenging to solve for a few reasons: Arsonists usually start them in secrecy, the evidence goes up in flames, and other evidence, such as fingerprints, get lost in the soot.

However, investigators determined that someone had deliberately started the fire, although they never revealed how or whether the arsonist used an accelerant. Years later, they stated that although the fire was an intentional act, they did not believe the arsonist meant to harm or kill; he or she was seeking attention.

Before the fire started, Carbondale police responded to at least two calls about loud music at The Pyramids. Someone had turned up the volume of a stereo in one of the apartments. When officers arrived and demanded the tenant open the door, no one answered. They could not find the manager with a key and could not legally break into the premises.

Speculation that someone intentionally set the fire for attention-seeking purposes seemed hard to believe. Why would someone go to that extreme with the high risk of seriously hurting or killing others? Did the fire get out of control? Who lived in the apartment with the loud music?

The tragedy left many questions that remain unanswered today.

Five years after the tragedy, the police still refused to say how the fire started.

From the Southern Illinoisan, September 21, 1997:

In April, a circuit court judge ordered Carbondale officials, under threat of contempt, to provide all evidence obtained during the criminal probe to attorneys representing the victims in the lawsuits — ending three years of motions and delays.

Investigators interviewed thousands and traveled out of state, and in May 1996, flew to Japan as part of their investigation. However, detectives never made an arrest or named any potential suspects in the fire.

About The Pyramids

The Pyramids was an off-campus five-building apartment complex that housed mainly international students. The fire occurred in only one of the buildings that contained 46 studio rooms.

Bonnie Owen, of Owen Property Management, was the manager. She helped raise reward money and worked to find housing for the displaced tenants. She had been out of town when the fire occurred and hired security guards to watch the building.

Fire officials estimated the building’s damages at $155,000 and its contents at $45,000.

The apartment building met all fire codes and had functioning fire alarms that alerted the fire department. Each studio apartment had a smoke alarm, but some had been deactivated.

Those Who Perished

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Not pictured: Mazlina Ab Wahid. Southern Illinoisan

The victims who perished in the fire were Asian. However, the police made it clear from the beginning there was no indication of a hate crime.

The five victims of The Pyramids fire are:

  1. Kimiko Ajikoa
  2. Ronald A. Moy, 23, of Chicago. He was a senior majoring in economics.
  3. Lai Hung Tam, 23, of Kowloon, Hong Kong. She was a senior studying marketing.
  4. Mazlina Ab Wahid, 28, of Malaysia. She was a freshman studying vocational education studies. After the fire, she was transported to Belleville Memorial Hospital with life-threatening injuries and died the following day.
  5. Cheng Teck Wong, 23, of Johor, Malaysia, was a senior majoring in electrical engineering scheduled to graduate that month.

Aftermath

The tragic fire united the Carbondale community, and residents helped in any way they could, whether assisting rescuers at the scene or doing volunteer work.

A memorial was held for the victims on Friday, December 11, 1992. Organizers displayed five flags on stage that represented the victims’ native country. Approximately 800 people filled Carbondale’s Shryock Auditorium to pay their respects and remember those who lost their lives on that tragic Sunday morning.

Steven Binder of the Southern Illinoisan reported that “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.”

Ajioka’s parents established the Kimiko Ajioka Memorial Scholarship in their daughter’s memory.

City officials held a memorial ceremony near the boat dock on Campus Lake on the fire’s 25th anniversary.

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December 6, 2017

Today, the apartment complex is under new ownership and renamed Ambassador Studio Apartments.

The Carbondale Police Department lists the fire as a cold case. Anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer (s) is encouraged to call the Carbondale Police Department (618)457–3200 or CrimeStoppers (618)549–2677. A $6,000 reward is available.

I have owned a true-crime blog since 2010. Follow my blog at https://truecrimediva.com

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