Almost half of a tiny community’s children wiped out in a horrific fire. A
father accused of having committed an unspeakable act. Last week, residents of Quatsino, a remote seaside hamlet on the northern end of Vancouver Island, mourned the deaths of six siblings— three boys and three girls between the ages of 2 and 11—in a March 11 blaze that has attracted the attention of RCMP investigators and the unwelcome glare of the media spotlight. “They were beautiful kids,” said Elva Janecek, one of the 75 residents of Quatsino, where everyone is a neighbour. “They were always happy, running and jumping around. They were just nice.”
Two members of the tiny community’s volunteer fire brigade, who were among the first people on the scene, described a terrifying tableau. Raging blazes engulfed all four buildings on the property. A tearful Sonya Handel, the children’s mother, begged and pleaded with her estranged husband, Jay, to tell her what he had done with the kids. Handel, a mountain of a man—nearly six foot six and weighing more than 230 pounds, with a bushy beard and moustache—sat impassively in the front seat of his beatup Chevy van, watching the flames destroy his home. As the firefighters looked on, he calmly tried to commit suicide by slitting his own throat.
The ferociousness of the fires precluded any rescue attempt. Afterwards, the heaps of ash and twisted household goods were so hot that it took forensic investigators almost two full days before they could start combing through the areas where
the children’s bedrooms had been. There the searchers found six small sets of charred human remains. The dead, say police, are the Handels’ children: Sebastian, 11, Roxanne, 9, Marshal, 7, Mariah, 6, Levi, 4, and Ledia, 2. Handel, 45, has been charged with six counts of firstdegree murder and is undergoing a psychiatric assessment. His wife, 32, is under medical care for shock in nearby Port Hardy. RCMP investigators have said little, so far, about their probe, but the four separate blazes appear to have started almost simultaneously, they note.
The close-knit hamlet, which is accessible only by sea and air, is reeling. Jay Handel is the head of the local community association, and three of the children were registered at the local one-room school. “It’s terrible—I don’t think most of us can grasp it,” said Doris Wold, who attends the same Christian Fellowship group as the Handels. “We were living in a quiet place,” said Janecek, “and suddenly it’s like Sept. 11.”
Few people were even aware that the Handels were estranged. Friends describe the family members as loving, happy and devoted to each other. “Jay is an intelligent, jolly man who always took great pride in his children,” said Andy Waines, a friend in Port McNeill, 40 km east of Quatsino. Last summer, Handel boarded with the Waines family while working at a local cedar processing plant. “I remember the few times he wasn’t able to get back home for the weekend,” said Waines. “He was pretty upset. What’s happened is unthinkable.”
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