Luttrell family thankful to generous community after house fire

Monday, January 12, 2004

Apparently, God is a bowler. That's what 18-year-old Steven Luttrell would tell you.

The night his family's home burned, Steven was knocking down pins at Jackson Bowling Lanes with his parents, Randy and Penny Luttrell, and his brother, Michael, 12, and sister, Susanna, 16.

The high school senior says playing the lanes saved their lives, and now he knows what God wants him to do.

When firefighters responded Dec. 2 to 304 N. Ohio St., on the corner of Kate Street in Jackson, fire roared out of the upstairs eaves and was at the front door. The family moved there in June from Cape Girardeau.

Not much survived the smoke and flames, but what few items did -- Steven's Bible, a portrait of Christ and a few photo albums -- were the family's most treasured belongings, said his mother.

The Bible was found on the floor near where the fire started from an electrical spark. Steven had gotten it out of a drawer earlier and left it on a bannister.

"There were 12-foot flames shooting out of the house, but there's a Bible that's not even touched," Penny said. "And this picture of Jesus is made of wood. You'd think it would have burned, but it was the only picture left hanging in the house."

'He's a gem'

After the fire was extinguished, Penny was terrified. Where would they go? What would they wear? How would she feed her children?

"It was devastating," she said. "I couldn't think."

Those questions would be answered faster than she could have realized.

Seeing the flames, a man working on an apartment on South Hope Street walked over to the scene, where he found Penny.

"Bobby McDonald offered me this house while that house was still in flames," she said in her new kitchen. "He said, 'I know it's early, but I've got a three-bedroom home you can rent, and we'll work out the payments later.' He's a gem."

He wasn't the only one who came to their rescue. A close friend gave them a temporary place to stay, and the local chapter of the American Red Cross provided emergency supplies.

The chapter helps nearly 250 families a year burned out of their homes, said executive director Mary Burton. The chapter serves an 18-county region.

"We will do anything that is needed that is not a luxury item to get a family back to normal, to a predisaster condition," she said. "We ask, 'Do you have a roof over your head, food in your belly and warm, dry clothes on?' Those are the things we look at."

Over the years, Burton has sat with many fire victims "still reeking of the smoke," she said.

Help from students

Jackson High School students immediately set about raising more than $1,000 in a three-day campaign organized by the Future Business Leaders of America. The family used the cash to pay the first month's rent and deposit on their new home at 200 Oaklane Drive near Gordonville.

"It was a schoolwide announcement made in our first hour class, and that day people donated money," said FBLA co-president Jenny Schlick. "We figured they needed some quick cash, so we brought them $200 during fifth hour that day."

Other school clubs, churches individuals and local businesses continued to shower the family with donations, including gift certificates, clothing, food, furniture and even a computer.

"They kept giving me food," Penny said. "And it got the point that I had so many canned goods I had to tell them to start giving food to someone else."

Steven, who works at Jackson Bowling Lanes, says the donations overwhelmed him.

"It was hard receiving something without having to work for it," he said.

The fire cleared up any questions he had about his future. Having bowled since he was 3 years old, he recently earned a bowling scholarship to a junior college in Vincennes, Ind., and intends to compete professionally.

"My life is better now than it was before our house burned down," he said. "God told me what to do with my life. Bowling saved our lives, basically. So that's what I'm going to do."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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