- Associated Press - Friday, April 18, 2014

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - Seven months after a fast-moving house fire killed his children, Robert Harvey got a chance to say goodbye while also working to prevent the deaths of other youngsters.

Harvey learned about the deaths of Rowan Harvey, 2, Annabelle Harvey, 5 months, and Evan Williams, 6, while serving a 20-month prison sentence for theft at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. Formal goodbyes were postponed until his release. On Wednesday evening at Stillman Park, the father finally got a chance for a proper farewell at a celebration of life he organized.

Dozens of people showed up at the pavilion bearing food to supplement the burgers and brats sizzling on the grill. They shared hugs, signed the guest book and gazed at photos of the children. From one, Evan grins, flashing a hang-loose gesture. In other snapshots, Rowan happily splashes in a creek and Annabelle smiles from her infant seat.

The Sept. 22 blaze also killed two adults, Treasa Philpott, 46, and Kristopher Morton, 29. The children’s mother, Kay Lynn Williams, 27, jumped to safety, as did David Eickstaedt, 49. The fiery nightmare started in the early morning hours, originating on the front porch.

Evan wasn’t Harvey’s biological son, but he said he’d fathered him since the boy was 8 months old. Harvey wears a tattooed Celtic knot necklace with an inked-on charm for each child. Evan, who liked to act like a pirate, is represented by an anchor. Rowan by a four-leaf clover and Annabelle, a star.

He never got to meet the baby, only heard her cooing at him over the phone.

“I got to hear her laugh for the first time,” he said. “It echoes in my ears, stays with me.”

He and Evan had been using their phone time to plan a summer beach trip for after Harvey’s release at the end of March. Now, Harvey will go without him and spread Evan’s ashes there.

He treasures time spent with Rowan.

“He was my guy,” Harvey said. “We were two peas in a pod and really close.”

At the celebration, Harvey wore a T-shirt with the words “Overcome tragedy. Achieve success.”

He said he sat in his cell, trying to figure out how to do just that after getting the devastating news about his children. He decided to train as a structure firefighter, something that won’t be easy considering his felony conviction, but he said he will fight for the right after finishing parole and studying fire science.

He also started a nonprofit organization to educate low-income families about fire safety. He is collecting donations of equipment such as smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, rope ladders and CO2 monitors to disburse to those who can’t afford them. The organization’s name is New ERA, an acronym comprised of the first letter of each child’s name.

“I had a lot of time to think and plan,” he said. “It’s important to have a positive attitude and make something out of this.”

As Harvey talked, he held the leash of a pit bull with different colored eyes, one brown, one blue. The dog, Blue, escaped the fire that night. When emergency workers opened the back door, he had burst out. Friends cared for the dog until Harvey’s release from prison.

The fire’s human survivors also attended the barbecue. Kay Lynn Williams, the children’s mom, chose not to talk on the record. The other survivor, David Eickstaedt, said burns on his face and arms have healed, though he has trouble shaking images of that day. He misses the lively antics of Evan and Rowan.

“They were good boys,” he said. “I loved ‘em.”

A neighbor had noticed one of the boys on the porch about 5:30 a.m., near a can of cigarette butts and cardboard. The fire burned hot and roared through the two-story house, destroying evidence that might have helped determine the cause. The house has since been torn down.

At the informal celebration of life, the guests shared stories while breaking bread. Harvey said local businesses (Safeway, Franz Bakery and Cash & Carry) had donated food. The Elkhorn Brewery gave 300 pounds of ice.

Those interested in donating fire safety equipment to Harvey’s nonprofit may call him at 541-215-3867.

___

Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info

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