Horror, shock and sadness rippled through Jackson Tuesday following an early-morning fire that killed a young, athletic and music-loving couple with plans to get married some day.
Gabe Koehler, 20, and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Rachel Smith, a Jackson High School senior, died when a blaze broke out in the basement of Kenneth and Carolyn Koehler's home at 516 Morgan St.
Smith was the daughter of Wade and Roxanne Smith, who moved to the Kansas City area last summer and were making their way back to Jackson on Tuesday. Friends said Rachel wanted to stay in Jackson for her senior year and was living with the Koehlers, Gabe's parents.
Cape Girardeau County Coroner Mike Hurst said the tentative cause of death was smoke inhalation, but he won't know for sure until more laboratory work is finished.
"They were in the basement, trapped by the fire and could not get out the basement door," Hurst said. "They were in the back bedroom, and the fire was in front of them and they had no exit."
Firefighters responded to a call at 12:13 a.m. and found the home engulfed with smoke and with heavy fire shooting out the back basement door.
Jackson fire chief Brad Golden said the fire most likely was caused by a faulty appliance or electrical cord. The state fire marshal will do a complete investigation.
Little left behind
By late Tuesday morning, all that was left of the ranch-style house was charred wood, the faint smell of smoke and the meowing of a cat hidden in the bushes.
Bruce Dockins of McCombs Funeral Home said the Koehler family was busy buying necessities like clothes and glasses Tuesday afternoon. The family declined to speak to the Southeast Missourian.
Teachers and students were saddened by the loss of both a current student and a recent Jackson graduate.
"She was a very good friend, open and honest," said Samantha Myer, one of Rachel's closest friends. "She was always there no matter what. She was very outgoing. She would do anything, and she really didn't care what people thought."
Myer said the couple started dating last summer and at one point were engaged to be married. She said they backed off the engagement, saying things were moving too fast, but they were still planning to get married some day.
Myer said Smith ranked near the top of her class, scored a 32 on her ACT and had plans of going to a college in Kansas for a year before eventually majoring in aerospace engineering at San Diego State University.
Smith was a second soprano in a school choir and took several of the school's advanced placement classes. She also ran track and was an all-stater in cross country.
Gabe Koehler, who graduated last year, was a former football player, wrestler and a percussionist in the band.
Band director Scott Vangilder said he taught Koehler for seven years.
"He gave 100 percent at everything," he said. "I was truly saddened. He was the type who would have contributed to society in a good way."
Choir director Christy Shinn said hearing the news was "kind of like waking up in a bad dream." She said the shock was too much for some of Smith's friends to handle at school, and they went home.
Principal Rick McClard said the announcement was made along with a moment of silence. He said counselors were available to students.
"We had a lot of upset students, of course," McClard said. "It was an unexpected situation, and many students have been visiting counselors, dealing with the grief and so on. The initial shock was just tremendous."
So was the fire.
Golden said he called for mutual aid from Cape Girardeau. Twenty-four Jackson firefighters responded to the blaze, along with four ambulance workers and several officers from the Jackson police and county sheriff's departments.
Firefighters finally left the scene at 7:30 a.m. after working in brutally cold temperatures the entire night.
Neighbors recalled seeing smoke and fire.
"It was around midnight, and I heard somebody holler," neighbor Carl Loenneke said. "I looked outside and all I saw was smoke. I looked in the basement to make sure it wasn't my house, and then the firefighters knocked on my door and told me to leave my house."
Betty Williamson, who lives across the street, said she was asleep and she also heard someone yelling.
"Fire was shooting out the windows," she said. "It's just terrible. Gabe was a nice-looking young man. He and my grandson are the same age."
Tuesday's fire was the first fatal blaze in Jackson since 1998, Golden said.
Friends of Gabe Koehler's may call from 4-9 p.m. Thursday at McCombs Funeral Home in Jackson. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at the Funeral Home.
Arrangements for Smith were incomplete Tuesday.