As twins, they naturally shared life experiences. As single mothers, they worked together as caterers, and together they rented a home in Leucadia for themselves and their children.
Eventually, they also shared in death.
When they came home from work one Friday night nearly two years ago, they discovered their old wood-frame house consumed in flames. While rescuers saved one child, Karen Myers and Sharon Scruggs watched, hysterical, as the inferno claimed two other children: Myers’ 2-year-old daughter and Scruggs’ 15-year-old son.
Today, the 43-year-old sisters say, they both have something to share with other parents: the ability to listen with empathy and to share the grief of having a child perish in a house fire.
That kind of volunteer work they plan to do will be made easier, they say, with the $3 million a Vista Superior Court jury awarded them Friday because of faulty electrical wiring in the house.
“It’s a weird way to become wealthy,” Myers said Monday. “I’m having a hard time dealing with that. It’s not like an inheritance, or that you worked hard all your life for it. So there’s bittersweetness.”
The sisters now live together in Oakland, wanting to put distance between themselves and memories of the fire. They talk of buying a home away from the city so they can take life a little easier.
Already they volunteer as cooks at Oakland’s Healthy Babies Project, dedicated to helping women who are pregnant or who have young children and who are battling their own demons with drugs and alcohol.
With the loss of their own children to fire, “we want to be there for others, to help with grief counseling,” Scruggs said. “We think that, through our own experience, we can reach out to others.”
Some of the money, the sisters say, will be used to train themselves and others as counselors for grief-stricken parents.
Continuing to live in San Diego proved too painful, they said.
“Everywhere I’d go, I’d see places I had been with my daughter and nephew,” Myers said. “People were constantly stopping me and offering their sympathy. Or, they’d ask, ‘Where’s your baby, she’s so cute, and where’s that fine young man?’ I’d have to decide whether to tell them the truth, or just smile and say nothing.”
Even today, the sisters remain angry at the thought of unresponsive landlords--who they say were told repeatedly about wiring problems at the house before the fire struck.
“If they had fixed the electricity, this never would have happened,” Myers said. “And they never admitted until they went to trial that they were at fault.”
The owners of the 60-year-old, two-story structure--which had been divided into upstairs and downstairs apartments--don’t deny their blame in the fire, said their attorney, Bruce Warren.
The structure was on property that had been rezoned from residential use to commercial, and the owners were considering whether to tear it down. The electrical wiring was in a shambles, the Encinitas fire marshal said after the fire.
Although the owners of the house didn’t think it was that bad, they had told the sisters, who were paying $600 a month in rent--not to figure on any major renovations of the place, the owners’ attorney said.
Even on the day of the fire--Jan. 19, 1990--the sisters had complained about the wiring, according to court testimony. Only one electrical outlet was working. It served a television set and a lamp.
That night, when the mothers were at work and with all the house dark save the TV and the lamp, a wire in the ceiling between the first and second floors arced inside its conduit and burned through the protective lining. The ceiling material heated, then began to smolder and smoke.
There was no smoke alarm to startle the sleeping children.
Two California Highway Patrol officers had just stopped at a gas station next to the house and were entering the northbound on-ramp of Interstate 5 at Leucadia Boulevard when something caught their eye.
Just that quick, the house was afire. The officers called for help by radio, sped back to the house and, through the fire and smoke, were able to save Scruggs’ 10-year-old daughter, Ayida Aganaku.
But her 15-year-old son, Ayikwei, and Myers’ 2-year-old daughter, Monife, perished.
The sisters’ attorney, Gerald Davee, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit three months later, saying he would seek $3 million in compensation.
That’s what they received: $1 million to each sister for the loss of a child, $250,000 to each sister and the surviving child for emotional trauma and $250,000 to the three for medical expenses, property loss and past and future therapy.
Warren said the owners of the house may appeal the verdict, or ask for a new trial.
“We admitted liability and responsibility,” Warren said. “And we asked the jury to determine what it was that was owed because no one else could figure it out. There had been settlement discussions, but those didn’t prove fruitful, and it came down to a jury deciding what the values were.”
Warren said the jury’s award “was somewhat higher than we expected.”
Part of the defense tactic--which reflected California legal doctrine--was to attempt to assign some of the blame to the sisters for not fixing the electrical problems themselves, Warren acknowledged.
“Certainly there was evidence introduced at the trial from which a jury could have found that at least some percentage (of the blame) might have fallen on the parents,” he said.
But the jury found the owners 100% responsible.
“Nothing can replace the children, but we feel at least somewhat compensated,” Scruggs said Monday at a friend’s home, where the sisters stayed during the two-week trial.
“When we lost our children, there were organizations to help us, like the Trauma Intervention Program and the Red Cross. We are so thankful for those people who helped us through our grieving process so we wouldn’t have to do it alone.
“But we think of all the people who lose loved ones, and they’ve got no one there to help them. Maybe we can.”
Scruggs said she also wants to help promote greater use of smoke detectors.
“We want to go into the schools and talk to the children and explain to them how they can help their families be more safety-conscious,” she said.
The sisters say losing a child through fire is probably the hardest means of death to reconcile.
“We think, what if our children had died in a car accident, or because of a drive-by shooting? And I imagine the easiest way to cope with a child’s death is if the child was sick, and you could try to brace yourself,” Scruggs said.
“But when you come home and see your house on fire, and you know your children are in there, and you are helpless . . . “
At least, the sisters say, they had each other to lean on.
“We’ve talked it over and over and over again, and we’ve relived it,” Scruggs said. “People say time heals, and that it would be one day at a time. We never thought time could heal.
“But eventually the time came when a day would pass by, and we didn’t talk about it, or relive it, or see the flames in our mind,” she said. “And I imagine that, as the years go by, it will become even easier to understand what happened.
“But, when we see a fire truck or hear a siren, we’re taken right back to that moment.”