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Devastating fire at an Eastwood home leaves one uninsured family mourning their possessions, but focusing on their safety

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

A fire has destroyed half the Eastwood home of the Empey family. Sentinel-Review photo

A fire has destroyed half the Eastwood home of the Empey family. Sentinel-Review photo

Something told Paula Empey that she should go back to her burned home, wade through the debris, and retrieve some laundry soap.

After a fire destroyed half her Eastwood home on Saturday morning, kind neighbours took in the Empey family, including two dogs.

But on Saturday evening, Paula couldn't stop thinking about those laundry supplies.

“When she went back in the house, she heard a cat meowing,” said Paula’s husband Terry Empey.

One of their three cats was still missing after the fire. The couple assumed the young kitty had died in the blaze. But when she went into her bedroom, calling, Empey saw a little head poke out from under the bed.

“I thought I was hearing things. I mean, he was in the house through the whole thing,” Paula said. “This little kitten had been through the entire ordeal.”

It was a bright spot in an otherwise terrible weekend.

And it was a desperately needed boost for the family, who was already dealing with the loss of Terry’s grandfather even before their possessions were consumed by the morning blaze.

Terry Empey was sleeping on the couch – both Terry and Paula been sick and didn’t want to wake each other up with their coughing – when he first smelt the fire.

“He heard me rustling around and said ‘When you put wood on the fire, hon, you’ve got to open the damper.’ I’m like ‘I haven’t put any wood on the fire.’”

The family moved quickly after that.

“The house is filling up with smoke and we’re clicking in. He got animals out, I went and got my daughter up and called 911,” Paula said.

As they were running outside, the smoke alarms went off. Terry said both he and his wife have sensitive noses, and it seems their keen senses of smell gave them precious extra minutes to mobilize and escape.

The family stood on the lawn as firefighters arrived at their home to try and douse the flames. It seems the fire began in the chimney and spread out to the walls.

“They came out to get hoses, and as I’m on the phone to call the landlord, the living room was a flash, whoosh. All you see is flames,” Paula said.

The family was between insurance providers, so although their landlord’s structural insurance will help cover the house, none of their possessions will be covered.

“I feel lost. I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted,” said Terry.

One of his coworkers set up a GoFundMe account to help the family replace their clothing, furniture and other items. Donations can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/37eqgxs.

A friend of the family is also organizing a fundraising dance to support the Empeys. The event is set for February 25, 2017 at Unifor Hall in Woodstock, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

"They're just good people," said Marsha McConnell, the brains behind the fundraiser. "If the tables were turned, there's no doubt in my mind that they would do the same for anybody."

She's looking for local individuals or businesses that want to donate food for the event. A number of organizations have already stepped forward to provide penny sale prizes and other donations. Anyone interested in supporting the dance should contact McConnell at 519-539-0384.

Despite the challenges ahead of them, the Empeys said they are grateful beyond words for the outpouring of love and support. Both Terry and Paula are receiving non-stop messages, some even from strangers.

“We’re just overwhelmed,” said Terry.

“We can’t thank the people that have taken us in enough for what they’re doing. And we do appreciate all the people that want to donate.”

With their temporary lodging there’s not much room for storage, though the family thanks all those residents who have offered to send replacement items their way.

Paula said it’s an incredible reflection of the people in their lives.

“You never know how many people you touch until something devastating happens, and then you figure out who knows you, who loves you,” she said. “We can’t emphasize (it) enough, thank you. Words can’t say how appreciative we are.”

The family is hopeful that they’ll be able to move back onto the property eventually, after renovations to the current structure or after a new home is built.

And they’re staying positive, focusing on their safety.

“We’re going to get through it,” Terry said.

“It’s going to be a long battle but we’re going to get through it.”

mstacey@postmedia.com