Family soldiers on after fire devastated their Louisa home
LOUISA, Va. (AP) — From the walls to the floor, the only place not awash in flames was the edge of the bed where 74-year-old Evelyn Neff sat, screaming for help.
“Mom was screaming my name, and Mom never asks for anything, so I knew something was wrong,” recalled Neff’s daughter, Vicky Hanes, 53. “When I got to the door, the bed, the house, the bathroom were in flames. The only place that wasn’t was where Mom was sitting on the bed. We had to pull her off the bed and get her out of the room because she can’t walk more than three steps due to her bad (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”
At 2:30 a.m. Sept. 19, the 15-room Louisa County farmhouse that was built in the 1790s and added to over the decades caught fire and burned, destroying nearly everything Hanes’ 11-person extended family owned, including furniture, clothes, wheelchairs and a PlayStation and all the games that go with it.
An elderly golden retriever, two Yorkies, one cat and a macaw died in the blaze, but every human made it out uninjured.
“God blessed us to get 11 of us out in just a few minutes,” Hanes said. “We lost just about everything, but we are blessed to be here.”
Family members believe the fire likely started when a cigarette came into contact with the oxygen supply Neff uses to treat her COPD. They believe the fire burned brighter, hotter and faster because it fed off the oxygen tanks.
With the room blazing about her, Hanes wrapped her arms around her mother to lift her off the burning bed. With help from her husband, James, they dragged Neff into the living room and onto the porch, where they put her in a chair, and they ran back in to help others make it to safety.
“When we got her onto the porch, I saw my grandkids there and went in to make sure everyone else was coming out. But there was so much smoke in the house in that three minutes that I knew it was gone. I stumbled over a dog and picked it up and carried out,” Hanes recalled.
Getting everyone out safely was not that easy. Many in Hanes’ family have medical issues and rely on her for some kind of care.
Hanes’ daughter, Jennifer Bond, and her daughter Makayla and son Chase were staying overnight as Bond was scheduled for surgery in Richmond the next day and Hanes planned to give her a ride.
Hanes’ cousin Barry and his wife were living in the house and relying on Hanes’ help. His cancer is in remission, but he still suffers from chronic medical issues.
Hanes’ son, Richard, and his fiancé were staying while they saved up for a place of their own. Steve Boyd was homeless before Hanes invited him to stay in the sprawling farmhouse.
“It’s a big house, so it’s not all that crowded,” Hanes said. “I’ve always taken care of people, and it made it easier when everyone is in one place.”
The rescue mission began when Neff’s pleas woke up 12-year-old Makayla, who was sleeping in a nearby room with her mother. She ran to get Hanes while Bond checked on Neff.
“I opened the door and there were just flames everywhere, and she was just sitting on the edge of the bed, yelling, and I just felt panic come over me,” said Bond, 34. “Makayla had run to get my mom, and she and my stepdad came in and pushed by me to grab (Neff). I turned and went through the house to wake everyone else up and get them out. While I was doing that, I picked up the cellphone and called 911.”
Bond said the house quickly filled with smoke.
“I just ran through the house, knocking on doors and yelling to get everyone out while I was on the phone call to 911,” Bond recalled. “I ran up the stairs to get my brother and his fiancée, and by the time I got back down, the house was absolutely filled with smoke.”
With all the people accounted for, family members then tried to rescue their animals.
“By then, there was so much smoke that we just couldn’t go back in. The flames were spreading so quickly and the smoke just filled up so quickly, there was nothing we could do. It’s still so sad,” Bond said.
“I couldn’t go back in,” Hanes said, sadly. “It’s like God said, ‘I got you out once, so don’t be stupid.’ It hurts, though.”
While family tried to crank up a garden hose to put some water on the fire, Hanes ran into her bedroom via an exterior door.
“I remembered I have a door to the outside, so I ran in to get my purse. There was a little money in it and I knew exactly where it was, so I grabbed it and ran out,” she said. “I’m glad I did because it has everyone’s medical information and my driver’s license and all. It would have been hard trying to prove everyone is who they are with everything burned up in the house.”
Fire authorities urge people to never go back inside a burning structure.
The family gathered in a nearby field as firefighters arrived.
“It seemed like every minute took forever,” Bond recalled. “You could see the flames coming up through the roof and the windows. It was awful.”
When the firefighting was done, part of the house was burned down and the other part was so smoked and soaked that everything from laptop computers to shoes, socks and underwear was ruined.
“Everything I had was in there,” Hanes said. “The Red Cross helped out to get us some clothes and some kind folks have donated some clothing to us, but pretty much everything is gone.”
Worse, Hanes had no insurance on the house.
“I was fixing it up so we could get insurance,” she said. “They came out and looked at the house when I was trying to get the insurance. They said we needed to fix up the siding that was broken and paint the (metal) roof that was peeling and do some other things. I was doing some of that as we went along and saving up for other things, so we didn’t have the insurance. Now there’s no way to rebuild it.”
Bond and her children are trying to help by setting up a GoFundMe account, gofundme.com/devasting-house-fire-needing-help, with a target of $50,000 to cover fixing up the house enough to make it inhabitable. Louisa County is waiving tipping fees at the landfill so the family can clear the charred remains of the home and their possessions.
In the meantime, the family has scattered about, with folks living in Greene County, Spotsylvania and other places. Boyd is still at the home site, sleeping in a tent.
Meanwhile, Hanes is rolling up the miles, doing her best to do her duty to her family, get her people to appointments and make sure everyone is cared for.
“I’m a caregiver. I’ve spent all of my life caring for people,” Hanes said. “My grandmother died in the same room that burned, and a lady who used to live here died in that same room. I took care of them and I took care of my mother-in-law and others.”
Often considered the rock of the family, Hanes said she doesn’t feel that way now.
“I’m sort of feeling helpless because I have people who rely on me, and I pretty much have nothing. All of the calendars were burned up, so I don’t even know when anyone’s medical appointments are,” she said.
Despite the loss, Hanes said the family will make it.
“We’re not the only ones who are struggling, and lots of folks have it worse. I’m smart enough to realize that everyone out here is struggling; I don’t think everything comes easy to anyone anymore,” she said.
“God blessed us by getting us all out alive, so I still have hope. I’m going to look for a job to help rebuild, and I’m good with tools. Most of the folks in my family are carpenters, so maybe we can fix things up,” she said.
“If I can work seven days a week and take care of my people, I don’t mind. I don’t mind hard work,” she said. “I’m just hoping we can all be back together.”