Dateline | January 17, 2014
>> snapshots of a time gone by. capturing a life that could have be been. you'll that's left are the burned out remnant of a life that's gone.
>> i've seen the destruction to my family. i've seen my parents fall apart.
>> i didn't think my life was going to turn out like this at all. had this not come to a head now, the mystery would have lived on. the carlson family would have always wondered what really happened.
>> the story begins here around the finger lakes , a stunning part of upstate new york . this is where the carlson family put down its roots.
>> all right --
>> it's here that carl carlson brought his bride, christina , to meet his family in 1986 . his brother, mike, took to her right away.
>> she was small, tiny little girlment not very tall at all. a very simple sweetheart of a kid.
>> christina and carl had met in north dakota where carl was stationed in the air force . when he was discharged, they came to his home to make a life. was she a good fit to the carlson tsunami.
>> absolutel -- carl dison family? will.
>> absolutely. she would give it as well as take it.
>> chris --
>> they were a cute couple, christina , the little cheerleader from california . carl , the rough and ready country boy. christina 's sister, colette, liked the way carl made chris laugh.
>> they would laugh and joke. he was this big barrel-chested guy. my sister only 4'11".
>> they got work in the stone quarry . it wouldn't be long before they had three kids -- aaron, levi, and katie.
>> she'd be on the floor playing with them or teaching them or instructing them or coddling them. and it wasn't just her kids, it was all of our kids.
>> look at those two lovely people over there.
>> christina seemed happy. but carl wanted more than a life working the quarry, and christina 's father, art alexander, offered a ticket out. the job was a future working in his heating and air conditioning company.
>> if you ever need a job, come on out to california , and you'll have a job. you can work with me.
>> so they moved all the way across the country to murphy. an old mining town in the sierra foothills. carl found them a ramshackle house at the top of this long, winding road . it wasn't much, but it was closer to colette. and christina made it special.
>> so she went into like home decorator mode and started painting and sewing curtains. you know, every time i'd go up, wow, this looks really good.
>> thank you, darling.
>> christina and carl celebrated christmas with christina 's family in 1990 . just a week later, their lives would change forever. it was new year's day, 1991 .
>> i come outside, i saw the smoke from the house . i could see where the smoke was out there.
>> carl and christina 's house was on fire. carl said he had been in the garage, but he rushed to the house . he pulled the kids out of their bedroom windows where they were napping. but christina was trapped in the bathroom. flames raging just outside the bathroom door. the window was boarded shut from the inside. by the time art arrived, the paramedics were already on the scene.
>> got in the ambulance and looked around -- i said, "where's chris ?" they told me -- one of the kids said, "she's with god" or "the angels took her," something like that. that's when i -- i don't -- she wasn't there.
>> art could only imagine the terror of her last moments on earth. he then placed one of the toughest calls he's ever made.
>> i need to tell you something. said, there was a fire at chris ' house . everyone got out but chris . and i said, "are you kidding me?" he said, "no."
>> back in upstate new york , the carlson family got the terrible news. mike and his sister-in-law flew to california to help carl and the children who were all under the age of 7.
>> i said, i'll help when i can help. tell me what to do. and he was just numb. he was more of a zombie. he just said, "i don't know."
>> are you thinking how in the world is my brother going to take care of these three little kids?
>> right. i had no clue.
>> carl spoke briefly with fire investigators. he said he wasn't sure how the fire started, but he knew why it moved so fast. the pets had knocked over a container full of kerosene a day or two before. carl didn't share many other details with friends and family, and mike sensed it was hard for carl to deal with anything important. after a while, mike pressed him a bit.
>> what are we doing? if we're going to stay in california , you nationwide to arrange for an apartment. you've got to get supplies, get the house settled, get the -- kids need some form of stability here. that's when he said, "i just want to go home."
>> so four days after the fire, carl packed up his three children and flew back to upstate new york . it was yet another blow for christina 's grieving family.
>> my sister and i had made a commitment to each other that our kids were going to grow up knowing each other. and then it was stripped in five days.
>> all christina 's father had left of his beloved daughter was this box of charred photos that he rescued from the house . reminders of her and the grandchildren he loved.
>> after her death, i was probably more dead than alive. didn't pay attention to a lot of things that i should have. but i did muddle through. i didn't care.
>> hobbled by grief, he also felt a helpless and maybe pointless anger toward his son-in-law and wondered why didn't carl do more to save christina that terrible day.
>> there was a pick out in front of the window. if someone wanted to get in the window, all they had to do was use the pick.
>> for the children, art would contain his anger and keep the family peace. but what happened in that little house on the hill would come back to haunt christina 's family in the years to come.