Tami DeVore’s mobile home in Glidden is littered with photos of her young boys who perished in an apartment fire.
Tami DeVore’s mobile home in Glidden is littered with photos of her young boys who perished in an apartment fire.
November 25, 2013



Council Bluffs

Larry Wohlers reached into the black, smoke-filled abyss, searching for the three young children he knew were trapped by fire.

He grabbed, with his other hand, the boot of a fellow firefighter as they crawled in fire suits and oxygen masks through the living room of a Council Bluffs apartment.

They were the first two firefighters through the door on that sunny afternoon in February 1991.

Tami DeVore, now 47 of Glidden, had left her young boys alone in the apartment as she chatted with friends in a nearby parking lot. Her 1-month-old son, Douglas Jr., sat strapped in a car seat on the couch.

The other boys, Wesley, 4 and Charlie, 2, apparently found one of Tami's cigarette lighters and ignited the family's Christmas tree, which the boys had insisted they keep for more than a month after Christmas until their new father returned from the First Gulf War.

Tami and her friends later saw the rising smoke and someone called 911.

The two-floor apartment was thick with smoke by the time Wohlers arrived four minutes later.

"It was really hot and pitch black," recalled Wohlers, a young firefighter at the time who is now interim fire chief for Council Bluffs, in a recent interview with the Daily Times Herald. "You couldn't see anything, but you could feel the heat on you."

The men circled the room on their hands and knees - shouting to each other through their masks - but couldn't feel the boys. They swept past the couch near the tree. They didn't know that little Douglas sat helpless on its cushions and was likely dead.

Wesley and Charlie apparently ran upstairs to escape the blaze. They inhaled too much of the smoke and died as they lay on the bedroom floors.

Someone called Tami's father, John DeVore, at work at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha - the place that sparked Tami's childhood fascination with animals.

"She said the boys were gone," DeVore remembers.

Confused and panicked, DeVore drove to the apartment complex on the northwest side of Council Bluffs. He saw the firefighters carry out three small bodies covered with sheets. Little Douglas was last.

DeVore and Tami grabbed each other and cried.

A world away in Saudi Arabia, Douglas Barlow, then 25 and married to Tami, had just finished a day of transporting water in a hulking military truck between a treatment facility and U.S. Army base camps.

He had left his new family six months before to fight in the First Gulf War.

Barlow walked to his tent to find a place to rest, but inside were Army chaplains and unit commanders.

Something must be wrong, he thought.



NO BLAME

"Barlow," his platoon sergeant barked, "we need you to surrender your weapon."

Barlow handed over his M-16 rifle and saw the sadness in his commander's face.

"There's been a fire."

The hours and days that passed were a blur.

First he raged. He tore down one of the military tents and swore and sat alone in the desert.

He had left his new wife in Council Bluffs, feeling like a real father to his two adoptive sons whose out-of-control behavior he tried to contain. Losing them to the flames, he said, hurt more than losing Douglas Jr., whom he had never met.

Barlow wondered whether the fire would have happened had he stayed.

Then he flew. To Germany, to different cities in the United States to get home.

Along the way, he refused to blame Tami for the fire - even though the boys had started a small fire with one of her lighters while he was away in Wisconsin, training for war. He knew that too many others would blame her, too.

Reporters wrote and talked about the fire for days, but they were distracted by Barlow's story - of a father away at war who lost three sons.

They buried the boys in a Council Bluffs cemetery, "and I just stopped thinking about it," Barlow said.

"I could have made it my crutch for life," he said. "But I decided to take this terrible thing - this ugly, ugly book - and put it up on that shelf and leave it there."



BACK TO THE TRAILER

But Tami couldn't forget. She lost her boys, and Barlow divorced her.

Her life, again, spiraled.

"Every time something bad happens in her life, she runs off and gets into drugs," her dad, John DeVore lamented. "I don't know what she's going to do when I'm not around anymore."

Tami argued and picked fights with family members and with people at strip clubs where she danced. In 1993, she fought a cousin at her uncle's funeral and was punched in the face, according to medical records she provided to the Daily Times Herald.

In 1995 - four years after the fire - she was sentenced to prison for a little more than two years for cashing more than $800 worth of stolen checks. Tami said she didn't know the checks were stolen.

She couldn't sleep at first in the Oakdale prison near Iowa City, where her leg and head throbbed at night from being hit by a car as a teenager - the crash that killed her friend. Tami often sought medical help in prison.

"She had numerous complaints and bizarre ideas about her body and its function," a prison doctor wrote in a report that Tami provided to the Daily Times Herald.

Tami told doctors she had asthma and diabetes and, maybe, lupus. She thought she was pregnant, and that the peas she ate in prison gave her mouth sores.

She claimed she had a "glass jaw" from her teenage crash - one medical report said.

She later claimed she was allergic to cats.

A prison psychologist determined that Tami was able to read like a 5th-grade student, but found no evidence of a mental health disorder.

"I'm not mentally retarded," Tami said recently. "I'm mentally disturbed."

After she was released from prison, Tami gave birth to a daughter, whom the state Department of Human Services took from her after it deemed her an unfit parent, Tami and John DeVore said. Tami occasionally places classified ads in newspapers in a desperate search to reconnect with her lost daughter.

She married and divorced again, and several years ago moved to Glidden, to a mobile home on the south side of town, where she made a safe place for the unwanted pets of her friends and others.

Tami said she occasionally hears the voices and giggles of her young sons.

She clings to her cats and dogs, fighting to keep them safe.

She must keep her children safe.



'TAKING MY BABIES'

A handful of volunteers from Animal Rescue of Carroll stacked plastic cat cages along the sidewalk that leads to Tami's mobile home on a recent October night.

It was a moment that Tami dreaded as she paced - back and forth, back and forth - through her home.

She had reluctantly agreed to give away most of the 53 cats that sheriff's deputies said they found in the home when they searched it for drugs in August. Tami says she had far fewer cats.

Deputies confiscated Tami's marijuana during that search, which she says she uses to subdue the frequent headaches that have plagued her since her teenage crash. But Tami avoided a criminal charge for the drug by agreeing to part with the cats, she said.

Carroll County Attorney John Werden, who has the ultimate say on whether she'll be prosecuted, did not respond to a request to comment about the situation.

Deputies also confiscated $300 cash from Tami's bedroom. For weeks she insisted it wasn't drug money - that she hoped to use the money to replace her soiled carpet with linoleum - and she eventually got it back.

Tami opened her front door for the Rescue's volunteers, who chased the cats from room to room, trying to corral them into the cages.

Tami's three dogs barked and barked and barked.

One cat jumped into a kitchen cupboard - a favorite hiding spot - and three women from Animal Rescue opened the cupboard doors - one at a time - to find it.

One woman snatched the cat, which then sprang from her grasp several feet through the air and galloped into another room.

Nicolle Johnson, who led the volunteers, had expected to take up to 20 of Tami's cats, but Tami changed her mind and only allowed them to take the ones that weren't spayed or neutered.

They drove away that night with five cats.

Johnson has seen similar hoarding before, but Tami's situation is different because the animals are healthy.

"I expected worse," Johnson has said. "Even though there's 50-some cats in there and three dogs, there were no flees. We had one cat we thought was pregnant, but it turns out she was well-fed."

Tami buys feed and litter in bulk at stores in Carroll each month. If one of the animals needs help from a veterinarian, the costs quickly consume her monthly, $710 Social Security disability checks, which she gets for her headaches and painful joints.

But she doesn't care about the money because the animals are her life.

Tami said her goal is to rent her mobile home to someone else and use the money to buy an acreage in the country, where she can have as many animals as she wants - like a tarantula, boa constrictor and rats, she said.

"Since the boys died, that's all she spends her time with," her dad, John DeVore, said. "She's never been the same. I don't think she ever dealt with it."

Barlow said he never dealt with it either, but he's been able to move on. He remarried and lives in a modest Council Bluffs house with his three boys and two girls, ages 5 to 17. He still works several jobs to feed and clothe his children.

Tami has convinced herself that it wasn't her cigarette lighter that sparked the fire 22 years ago that killed her boys. She swears it was ignited by the sun, as it peeked through a window at the brittle Christmas tree.

As the rescue workers loaded the last cat into a sport-utility vehicle, they wished they could have taken more and worried what will happen in Tami's home once they're gone.

"This is going to be a continuous, vicious cycle," Johnson said.

Inside the home, Tami sniffled in her bathroom. Again, in her mind, she failed to keep her kids safe.

"I'll probably cry myself to sleep tonight," she said.