Fire leaves mother, six kids homelessLocal woman tells story of blaze’s quick spread, faces uncertain future.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
It happened in the blink of an eye. A flame the size of a Tylenol bottle burst into a closet full of fire Monday afternoon at 219 E. Seventh Ave. in Mitchell and then spread further, severely damaging a portion of the house. Caroline Kennedy, 28, and her six children were living in the home, which she said contained smoke detectors.
That afternoon, Kennedy, a single mom, put her two youngest children down for naps. The children were fighting naptime, so she separated them — the 5-year-old in her bedroom and the 4-year-old in the living room.
“I was in the kitchen making myself lunch. Then I checked in on them while I picked up the house,” she said.
After a two-minute bathroom break, she came out of the bathroom, which was in her bedroom, to find her 5-year-old lying board-stiff on her bed.
“That’s not normally like him,” she said. “I asked, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ ”
When she walked into the living room, her 4-year-old was standing by the door with a surprised expression on his face.
Kennedy turned around to find her son was staring at a wisp of smoke coming from the stairway.
“I thought it was coming from upstairs,” she said. “So I ran around upstairs trying to find the smoke.”
Finding nothing, she came back down and found her 5-year-old standing in her bedroom door. He pointed her toward the closet where she found a small flame burning. She later learned he had apparently started the fire by playing with a lighter from his grandmother’s purse.
Typically, her closet is organized with clothing in plastic totes. But the night before, her children had spilled some of them while looking for their wrestling uniforms.
When she saw the flames, she called 911 and tried to put out the fire herself.
“I tried to stomp it out with my bare foot. Then I grabbed a pair of pants to hit the fire,” she said. “I saw that wasn’t putting it out, so I turned around to grab water from the bathroom.”
But the water didn’t work and she didn’t have a fire extinguisher.
“Had I had my clothes in the totes, maybe this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “I guess it’s kind of like karma because with all the fires happening, I was always saying, ‘It can’t be that hard to put the fire out and get the kids out.’ I was always critiquing.”
The flames spread quickly and she made her boys go outside and stand on the sidewalk. Kennedy stayed in the house a few extra minutes trying to get her cat and a few things, but the smoke quickly turned black and choking, forcing her to leave the house.
She had previously discussed an emergency plan with her children. Although they weren’t hurt physically, the children are still shaken up.
Her 5-year-old isn’t bubbly and smiley like he usually is, she said.
“I talked to him after it happened. He’s really a good kid,” she said, choking up. “He never gets in trouble. I know it bothers him because he’s not himself.”
Her 4-year-old was mad at his brother, but has since become more understanding, knowing it was an accident, Kennedy said. She declined a request to be photographed for this story.
Kennedy does not smoke and doesn’t keep lighters or matches in the house. But her mother, who often watches her two youngest, smokes and on Monday left her purse at the house. She typically gives the kids candy from her purse.
The 4-year-old said his brother had been digging in their grandmother’s purse.
“He must have found a lighter in there when he was supposed to be taking a nap, because I didn’t see him digging in it. … He’s never played with fire before,” she said.
The family lost everything but a few wrestling trophies and other items. They were renters and do not have insurance. The American Red Cross helped provide money for a motel room, but only through today.
The family has nowhere to go after that.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Kennedy said.
Her workplaces, the wrestling coaches at Mitchell School District and Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School administrators are working to help the family.
Kennedy said the Abbott House, where she is a teaching counselor, plans to give the family clothing. The wrestling coaches are planning to gather old uniforms for the boys, and Kennedy’s supervisor at the Best Western brought the family food.
Three of Kennedy’s children attend Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School and Principal Vicki Harmdierks said the students are all concerned about them. She asked each of the family’s children what they are most concerned about, and their respective teachers worked to contact parents with those concerns.
Kennedy’s 5-year-old was concerned about the family’s Christmas gifts, which were lost in the fire. His begindergarten teacher emailed parents asking for donations, and the response was swift.
Kennedy’s first-grader was worried about clothing for the family, so the first-grade teacher sent letters home with homeroom students. They’ve already received money to purchase new clothes.
Kennedy’s third-grader was concerned about his wrestling trophies, so students took notes home with them about donations to replace the trophies, Harmdierks said.
“Our student council will have a penny war to raise money for the family,” she added. “And one third-grader emptied her piggy bank and gave the family $30. We have very caring students here.”
The staff at Gertie Belle also plans to do something for Caroline, who is a former student of Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary.
“I just want to thank everybody who has helped me so far,” Kennedy said.
Although the family will be in an uncertain situation for a while, Kennedy said she hopes her story will alert others to how quickly fires can spread.
“It was so small,” she said. “I turned my back for one second and it multiplied times seven.”