CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The name Sylvia Paxton may not ring a bell. Her face is probably unfamiliar.
But if you lived in Fayette County or traveled U.S. 19 in the nearly 40-year span of the early-1950s through the late 1980s, you probably recognize her maiden name -- Sodder. The solemn faces of her five siblings, frozen in time, may haunt your dreams.
Paxton, née Sodder, is the last known living survivor of the house fire that destroyed her family's home on Christmas Eve, 1945.
Today is the 68th anniversary of the solitary event that defined her earliest memories and colored the rest of her life.
Paxton has worked quietly behind the scenes for many years trying to solve the mystery of her siblings' disappearance. She prefers to remain out of the spotlight, usually refusing photos and even declining to have her voice recorded for an NPR story, but her shyness hasn't deterred her sense of purpose or tireless searching.
Paxton described her first memory ... scenes from that night. Her father's arms, bloodied from his failed attempts to rescue her siblings.
"I remember standing there watching our house burn. My dad was inconsolable."
She was 3 at the time of the fire. She was asleep in her parents' room on the ground floor and was carried to safety by her mother and oldest sister.
It was presumed that five of her nine siblings died in the blaze. However, over the next few years, that presumption morphed into suspicion.
Were the children in their beds?
Genial West Virginia author George Bragg's entire demeanor changes when he speaks of the Sodder children. The billboard with the Sodder children's faces that stood along U.S. 19 outside Fayetteville for nearly 40 years takes up most of the back cover of his 2012 book "West Virginia's Unsolved Murders."
After an intense study of the case and interviews with some of the original investigators, Bragg described the events of Dec 24, 1945, as such:
"There were nine children at home and two parents that night. The eldest brother was away in the service. The parents had taken the youngest child, Sylvia, and gone to bed early. It was Christmas Eve, so the rest of the children stayed up later than normal. The two older sons went to bed shortly after their parents and the remaining children went to bed sometime before midnight, except for the eldest daughter, Maria, who fell asleep on the couch."
Around midnight, Jennie Sodder, the mother, was awakened by the telephone. The phone was in the office next to their bedroom, but it was a wrong number. She went back to bed and drifted off to sleep only to be awakened a second time by a thudding noise. She later recalled the noise sounded like a rock being thrown on the roof.
"She drifted back to sleep and, in just a short while, woke up a third time smelling smoke. She got out of bed and went back to the office to look. Where the telephone was, where the phone line and power came into the house, the fuse box was on fire."
She ran back to the bedroom and woke her husband, George. He jumped out of bed and went to investigate. The fire had spread to the point where he could not enter the office to investigate.
Jennie woke Maria, gave her the baby and sent them outside. Then she ran to the bottom of the stairs, already on fire, and called up to her children. Her two oldest sons answered her and got out of bed to rouse the others.
It is at this point in the story that Bragg said the accounts became murky. According to Bragg, in the very first police report of the fire, John Sodder, 23, said he and George Jr., 16, ran into the other children's room and shook them awake. In subsequent interviews John would say he only called to the other children, but that he did hear them answer.
Bragg thinks this detail is possibly the hinge pin of the entire mystery. According to John's account, the other five children -- ages 5 to 14 -- were in their beds.
A lovingly tended plot
Fire consumed the two-story house quickly. By all reports, the house was reduced to a smoldering pile of debris within 30 minutes of Jennie detecting the fire. By the time the Fayetteville Fire Department arrived on the scene around 8 a.m. the next morning, the Dec 26, 1945, edition of The State Sentinel newspaper in Fayetteville reports, "...the entire structure, with the burned bodies of the victims, was a heap of rubbish in the basement."
The same article states, "Tin roofing and other material was removed and part of one body was found."
These facts, as well as the tardiness of the first responders, would soon be drawn into question. But in the aftermath of those first few heart-wrenching days, George and Jennie Sodder sought only to ease their grief, never considering the possibility their children had not been in the fire.
According to a first-hand account of the funeral, published Jan. 2, 1946, in The State Sentinel, a makeshift graveyard had been erected on the house site. After the largest parts of the fire debris were removed, George Sodder filled the basement with dirt to bury what he believed to be the bodies of five of his children.
The article describes parents so disabled by their grief they were unable to even attend the community graveside service. Paxton was there, held in the arms of her oldest brother, Joe.
Paxton recalled that her mother would lovingly tend that plot as a flowering memorial to her children for the rest of her days.
From the start of the fire, it seemed as if fate were conspiring against the Sodder family. Some reports say the telephone lines had been cut; others speculate the fire damaged the lines. Either way, the family could not call for help and eventually sent the eldest daughter running to the neighbors to phone in the fire.
George and the two older boys began futile attempts to fight the fire but were thwarted at every turn. The ladder always left leaning against the building was missing. George Sr. and John attempted to start the two large trucks they kept on the property, but neither would turn over.