Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 17, 2014

Lifelong friends killed in house fire

Palo Alto High School graduates had been 'close forever,' nephew says

by Sue Dremann

The two men who died on Friday evening, Jan. 10, in a Palo Alto house fire were Donald Schoennauer and his best friend, Ed Martin, a Schoennauer family member said this week. Both were 64 years old.

Lifelong buddies who graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1967, they spent years together performing in a rock band, and when Schoennauer became ill, Martin became his dedicated caretaker, nephew Erik Schoennauer said.

The pair were killed after a kitchen fire broke out in Schoennauer's green, one-story home at 988 Embarcadero Road, according to Palo Alto officials. The blaze quickly spread to the rest of the house, ultimately engulfing about 50 percent of the 1,300-square-foot home.

Though firefighters contained the blaze within 10 minutes, Fire Chief Eric Nickel told the Weekly that officials believe the many books, papers and other combustible materials found throughout the house contributed to the speed with which the fire spread.

Investigators with the city and the regional Santa Clara County Arson Task Force this week determined that the fire was accidental, with "no indication of homicide or suicide," according to a press release.

They cited two possible ignition sources near the site of the fire's origin: an electrical appliance and cigarette-smoking materials.

Officials found what they believe to be Martin's body in the kitchen and Schoennauer's in the living room, Nickel said.

"He probably didn't have the physical strength to get out of the house," Nickel said, referring to Schoennauer, whose mobility was limited.

Schoennauer's 91-year-old mother also lived in the residence, but she was at a care home recovering from a health condition at the time of the fire, Erik Schoennauer said.

Both men had graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1967.

Schoennauer, a Vietnam War veteran, had been his mother's primary caretaker for the past 25 years. He had significant physical and mental health conditions as a result of the war, which worsened in the past five years, his nephew said.

"He had the side effects of Agent Orange and a liver condition from Hepatitis C, which he contracted there. His mental health issues were what we would more commonly refer to today as PTSD," he said.

Schoennauer had trouble walking.

"He could walk, but it was a struggle to get up, and a struggle to slowly shuffle to walk. Since it was a struggle to move, obviously, it was a struggle to get out in a fire," he said.

"He was a very caring person. In his war experiences, he saw the worst that can come out of people. It influenced him to be more compassionate and to be the counterbalance to everything he saw there," his nephew said.

Schoennauer was a great caretaker to his mother, he added.

"He would do anything for you," his nephew said.

Schoennauer was born on Feb. 25, 1949, and the family lived in East Palo Alto until he attended high school. In his youth, Schoennauer was a competitive roller skater, and he traveled the region and the nation. In 1960, he was the national champion in the juvenile division. In 1964, he placed third in the national junior division. But he stopped roller skating competitively in high school, his nephew said.

His parents, Daryl and Urania, purchased the Embarcadero Road home when Schoennauer was in high school.

In 1968, after he and Martin graduated from Paly, Schoennauer volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps. He completed boot camp at Camp Pendleton, then he served in the Vietnam War between 1969 and 1970 during the Tet Offensive. In the 1st Marine Division, he was responsible for defending the Da Nang Air Base.

"He was a maverick kid of the 60s. His political thinking and lifestyle emanated from his war experiences. They guided everything he did," he said.

Schoennauer became a charter member of the Santa Cruz-based VFW Post 5888, which was strongly opposed to U.S. foreign policies in the 1980s. He was proudest of his contributions to create a health clinic as part of the Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA.

His time on leave in Thailand during the war and his experiences in Vietnam led to a lifelong interest in Asian culture and cuisine.

In the 1980s, he lived in a commune in the hills above Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He played bass guitar and Martin played lead in a band, which performed regularly in the Santa Cruz area and the South Bay clubs, his nephew said.

"They were both great musicians. Ed was a magnificent player. He was somebody who just loved his music. He would go into the garage and just play the guitar by himself," Erik Schoennauer recalled.

Martin's mother is believed to live in Missouri, and Martin had a brother and a sister, Erik Schoennauer said.

Martin had "an incredible intellect. He was very knowledgeable about current affairs. Ed was always a buddy. They were close forever — since high school," he said.

Schoennauer was well-read, enjoying history and foreign policy. He was also a film buff, his nephew said.

While living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Schoennauer earned his pilot's license and flew aircraft out of Scotts Valley. In the 1990s, he earned a physician's assistant degree from Foothill College. He moved in with his mother and became her primary caregiver.

After Schoennauer's condition worsened, Martin moved in and helped with his day-to-day needs, aided by the Palo Alto VA Home Health Care program.

Schoennauer is survived by his mother, Urania; brother, Gary Schoennauer; nephew, Erik Schoennauer; and two grandnieces, Kennedy and Landry, of whom he was particularly proud, Erik Schoennauer said.

Donald Schoennauer was previously married to Elizabeth for 10 years. The couple had no children.

Services are pending, but are likely to be private in keeping with Schoennauer's nature, his nephew said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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