Fire destroys more than just our home

Published 7:58 am Wednesday, August 23, 2000

By By Katie Guyton
Advance Staff
Let me paint you a picture of every emotion that a person can feel. Maybe you will be wiser, more loving and grateful when you finish reading this article. Always remember there is a plan that you will follow whether you know it our not, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
I had to run to the store to get milk for the baby, Patrick. I went the long way to the store, then got behind a customer who took forever. Finally, I got back in the car and the three of us – Patrick, my other son Samuel and I – headed home.
When I pulled in the yard I thought it was funny that there was fog and it wasn't even cool. Then I saw that all the lights in the house were out and smoke was coming from the roof.
Immediately I thought. "My house is NOT on fire."
I snatched my keys out of the car and ran to the door. I put my key in, and as I turned the knob it felt warm. Then I felt the glass. It was extremely hot. The scene from the movie "Back Draft" flashed before my eyes. I tried to see in, but I couldn't see anything. It was black – no flames.
I thought, "My picture albums are right in the door. All I have to do is open it, step in and grab them."
As I stood there trying to make myself turn that knob – I couldn't. No matter how easy and how close, I could not do it. This was all taking place in a matter of seconds. Now that I had decided not to go in, I jumped in my car. My legs and hands were shaking uncontrollably.
I drove across the road to call 911. I could smell the house burning now.
I hung up the phone. The smoke was across the road now. I couldn't see the driveway. I pulled up in the yard. Chris Rutherford of the volunteer fire department was running all over my yard trying to find out where the fire had started. The Poarch Police Department was there. Where was the fire truck?
It seemed forever. Then they came.
I sat there, staying out of the way, watching, crying and thinking – thinking of everything in the house. My great grandmother's china, my mother's paintings, my wedding video, ultrasound pictures of my babies – so many things. I have always been so proud of my collection of family history pictures. They were special to me. It connected me with my mother. She was working on our genealogy when she was sick. After she passed away, I picked it up. We had come so far. Now it was all gone. As the hours burned by, I cried. Samuel cried. The flames grew bigger and brighter. They seemed to eat the house.
I thought, "Maybe we can save something."
When the firefighters knocked in the front door, all I could see was stud walls burning to the back bedroom. The closet with all my family pictures in it was gone.
As I walked to the front yard, I looked in the boys' rooms. Flames were shooting three feet off Samuel's bed. Patrick's sweet little blue striped curtains were hanging out the window in flames.
It hit me what could have happened. We wouldn't have gotten out. The battery had not been replaced in the alarm in the hallway. We would have been asleep. I couldn't have gotten to the boys. I grabbed my children and held them and thanked God for running out of milk, for taking the long way home and for slow customers.
As the fire died down and people left, I stood there looking and knowing it would be terrible to face in the morning. Chris Rutherford was so wonderful for taking my feelings into consideration. To my surprise, he let me go back into the house to get what photo albums I could find. What I found made my heart leap. I pulled them out and saw they were not burned all the way through. I took them and began pulling the pictures out with help from family. As each picture came out and I looked at the faces and the happy times, it occurred to me how easily and fast our lives can change.
At around 3 a.m., I went to my mother-in-law's house to finally go to sleep. Even though I was entirely exhausted, every time I closed my eyes all I could see was that horrible fire burning away.
The next morning I thought what a terrible dream that was – then it all came back. I reluctantly climbed out of bed to get ready for a day of digging and facing reality. I have never felt the feeling of homelessness until I walked in Kmart to buy a pair of shorts, deodorant, and boots. These were the only material possessions I now owned.
On the drive back out to the house, I was excited and nervous at what I was going to see. I knew it was going to be bad. I had not adequately prepared myself for when we turned into the driveway. What I saw only confirmed what I felt. There was my house, a strong safe house reduced to charred wood and a pile of bricks. But this house was not just wood and brick. This was where my sisters and I grew up. Our world was no bigger than the backyard. We felt safe in this house. No one could hurt us here. This was the only place my mother wanted to go to when she came back from Greece. The minute she landed, she said, "I want to go home." Her body didn't make it there, but her spirit did.
We dug, trying to find something, anything that was not consumed by the fire. The smell was horrible. I will never forget it. It turned my stomach and I really don't know if it was the smell or what it represented. We pulled many things out of the house. Most were wishful thinking. I did find some very special pictures of loved ones, pages from my mother's journals and, of course, a stack of bills not even wet.
One very special thing that made me happy and sad when it was handed to me was my mother's dinner ring. I was amazed that something so small could be found in such a big pile of ashes. I'm sure Someone had planned for it to be found. I was so excited that I did have something left that she had worn and cherished. I always had felt connected to my mother on a deeper level when I was in the house. She loved this house. She had stood in that kitchen, touched this wall and sat at this table. I felt I was losing this connection as the house was burning. I couldn't picture her in these places anymore because I can never see these things again. I was defeated and empty. But when this ring was laid in my hand, I knew I still had her.
I am very grateful and happy my family wasn't hurt. I still have to grieve my losses. If you think it cannot happen to you – think again. I'm one of those people.
Please heed this warning. Check your smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. Have a fire plan. And if you have important things, put them in a fire proof safe – today! I was planning to move all my important pictures and negatives to the bank. I just had not had time to get them together. Do it this weekend. Video your house, room by room, and put the tape in the fire safe, because you can't and won't remember everything. Of all these things, none of them would have helped me save my house. That's why it is important to support your local volunteer fire department. I am writing this so people who have never been through this will know how it feels and what to do. For those who have been through it, they will know they are not alone.
I would like to thank the Poarch Fire Department and Police Department, the Atmore Fire Department, everyone who donated things and everyone who said all the prayers for us. We could not have made it through this without you. I was completely amazed at how giving and unselfish people can be.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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