Fruitland family tries to bounce back from destructive house fire

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Fruitland family Wednesday focused on the things they saved rather than what they lost when their home was destroyed in a fire.

Dee Ann Vargas, husband Reggie Vargas and their children were not at home Monday when the fire began about 11 a.m. The blaze spread into the rafter of the home, causing the roof of the double-wide modular home to collapse onto the interior.

Among items found by firefighters as they dug through the debris were 13-year-old son Joshua Vargas' school letter jacket and daughter Abby Vargas' stuffed dog Pepper.

The stuffed dog couldn't have been more valuable to the 8-year-old girl if it were made of pure gold, Dee Ann Vargas said.

"The firefighters were so wonderful," Vargas said. "I cannot stress enough how they went above and beyond. They dug and dug and dug until they found that little black stuffed dog."

Firefighters also looked for other family items, she said. "The very first thing they pulled out was my wedding pictures, because the back bedroom did not burn," she said. "We saved a lot of our memorabilia boxes."

The pictures are now drying throughout the Cape Girardeau home of Dee Ann Vargas's mother, Judy Eggley, who has taken in the couple and their children.

It was only by chance that they were not home when the fire broke out around 11 a.m., Vargas said. Her husband needed to drop off a presentation for a class at Southeast Missouri State University after working a night shift at UPS, she said.

The family car is difficult to start, so rather than deal with the balky auto later in the day, Vargas said she grabbed their Yorkshire terrier dog and they drove into Cape Girardeau.

They returned as the first help from the Fruitland Fire Protection District was arriving, she said.

Oftentimes, she said, she and her husband are sleeping at that time as she tries to match her hours to his and be ready to care for the children after school.

Firefighters arrived to find flames and smoke spilling from the eaves of the Mulberry Acres home, assistant fire chief Andy Renner said. Fire had spread to along the length of the home through the area between the ceiling and the roof.

And while firefighters believe the fire started in the kitchen area, the clues that might have led helped determine the cause were too damaged to know for certain, he said. "It was accidental, we are pretty sure."

The mobile home park where the fire occurred is about three-quarters of a mile from U.S. 61 on Larch Lane, west of the Interstate 55 exit for Fruitland, Renner said.

The volunteer firefighters had the blaze under control in about 30 minutes, he said, but could not prevent the roof from collapsing into the home.

"It had a pretty good head start on us," Renner said. "It had probably been smoldering for about 30 minutes before it was noticed."

The family returned to the home Tuesday to search for any belongings that could be salvaged, said Debra Rau, Dee Ann Vargas's sister. They found two quilts that Dee Ann Vargas made for her children, a few other items and that was it, Rau said.

"What the fire didn't take, the smoke and water did," Rau said.

While the home burned, the family was joined by Derrick Staples, pastor of Lynnwood Baptist Church, for a prayer of thanksgiving that no one was hurt, Rau said.

She also said the family wants to keep life as normal as possible for the children.

After the shock of the loss wore off, Dee Ann Vargas said, some things helped lighten the loss. For example, she looked through her fire-shattered bathroom window and saw the toilet paper, unsinged, in its place alongside towels that were also undamaged.

And craft work she does -- candles -- also survived intact.

The rebuilding will be slow, she said. The family is looking for a temporary location to live, she said, but they have no furniture. But the response from friends and family has been enormous, she said.

"We have had a wonderful outpouring of clothing from churches, family and friends," she said. "We are at the point now where we are really overwhelmed. Everyone is asking, 'What can we do, what can we do?'"

The home was cozy, she said, but it can be replaced. And with the recovery of the most cherished items, she added, things can only get better.

"We keep telling ourselves, it is only stuff, it is only stuff," she said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 126

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