We take for granted that our stuff will always be there. Furniture, appliances and linens, yes – but also the things that define who we are. Sports trophies. Stacks of birthday cards. Blankets our grandmothers made. Collections of Christmas ornaments. Every photo we’ve ever decided was worth keeping.
Pam Spano fell asleep about 11 p.m. on Jan. 6 surrounded by just this type of stuff – her family’s most precious mementos, tucked away in boxes, closets and drawers throughout the four-bedroom house she had built in Huntersville with husband Chris 18 years ago.
A few hours later, it was gone, cooked by 1,200-degree flames.
Suddenly, the Spanos and their 17-year-old daughter, Stephany, were homeless, carless, stripped of any evidence of their pasts.
As firefighters monitored the smoldering remains, Pam Spano lay in a neighbor’s family room 100 yards away. “I kept thinking we were in a nightmare,” she says, “that this didn’t really happen.”
Making their escape
Chris Spano wasn’t home that night; as vice president of tax at a bedding manufacturing company in High Point, his job sometimes kept him away during the week. Kimberly, at 22, the oldest of the Spanos’ three daughters, was at her apartment near UNC Charlotte, where she is a grad student.
Bethany, the middle daughter, was home for winter break from UNC Asheville, crashing in the bonus room above the garage. She was the one awakened by a faint but obnoxious beeping, which she’d discover was coming from a carbon monoxide detector Chris had put in the kitchen just last Thanksgiving.
Within maybe two minutes, Bethany caught a whiff of smoke, went downstairs, saw the flames in the backyard, went upstairs, woke her mom and her sister. By this point, Sam Migirditch – their next-door neighbors’ college-age son – was pounding on the front door. They let him in, and he calmly but quickly helped corral the Spanos’ three dogs, Cocoa, Pumpkin and Kashi.
Pam grabbed her robe. Stephany instinctively grabbed her iPhone. Bethany slipped on sneakers and was clutching the cordless house phone she’d used to call 911. Otherwise, they had nothing but their pajamas. Pam and Stephany were barefoot when they rushed out the front door into the 9-degree night.
The blaze was roaring. Bill Suthard of the Huntersville Fire Department said that as he pulled out of his driveway, he could see the glow in the sky. He lives almost 3 miles away.
Most fires don’t burn houses to the ground because they usually start in the kitchen and can be quickly reported by the people who accidentally caused them. The Spanos’ fire started while almost anyone who might have seen it was asleep.
The fire burned so hot that the picture window in the front of the house blew out as firefighters entered. The windows of the Toyota sedan and the Honda minivan in the garage were blown out, too, and their paint jobs were charred, the tires melted. From the front yard, the structure’s remains now appear skeletal; from the rear, it looks like a bomb went off inside.
“This was the most devastating serious fire we’ve had in years,” Suthard says, adding that if the three of them had stayed in the house a couple of minutes longer, they would not have made it out.
The cause of the fire is listed as undetermined by the Mecklenburg County Fire Marshal’s Office; investigator Mike Petleski says it started in the back deck area, near a hot tub given to the family a decade ago. The hot tub’s high-limit switch may have malfunctioned due to the cold; arson is not suspected.
Starting from scratch
Chris Spano already was having a most awful week. The day before the fire, he was laid off, and when the blaze ignited, he hadn’t been home from High Point to get a consoling hug from his wife.
But in a weird way, the timing was fortuitous. Because, suddenly, he had a new job: rebuilding his family’s life.
Chris has spent hours replacing birth certificates, marriage certificates, Social Security cards, dealing with the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Passport Office (Stephany is leaving the country on a mission trip this spring).
“It’s just tedious,” he says. “If I would have been smart, I would have spent the 55 bucks, had (these documents) stored at Wells Fargo. But I wasn’t that smart. I thought I had a fireproof box. So that’s a huge fallacy for people who believe that their fireproof box is truly fireproof. Because if it isn’t, you’re stuck where I’m stuck: restarting your life 50 years later.”
The family has a homeowner’s insurance policy covering the house – the tax value is $285,200 – and had replacement cost coverage protecting their possessions. The adjuster arrived the morning after the fire and handed the Spanos a debit card loaded with $10,000 to be used for living expenses and necessities; Chris bought computers for Kimberly, Bethany and Stephany, all of whom were beginning spring semester.
In the two months since, Chris has traded countless phone calls and emails with the insurance company. They’ve spent hours going over the contents of the house with an agent – item by item, working from memory to recall what was in which room, and how old everything was. A settlement amount has not been determined.
That initial $10,000 is gone. When you wake up one morning and have only the clothes on your back to your name, life becomes exponentially more expensive – especially when you have two kids in college, and another on the way.
Your mortgage payments don’t necessarily stop when your house burns down. Neither do the car payments. All of your clothes are gone. All your food is gone. No oven, no microwave, no refrigerator. No silverware, no plates, no napkins. No table to eat at, no chairs to sit on.
Feeling the love
Yet from the moment Pam and her daughters stepped into the cold, they have felt nothing but warmth.
Next-door neighbors Bill and Sue Migirditch gave them coats and sweatpants to put on. Joe and Marguerite Keller, who live across the street, moved furniture out of their family room and replaced it with mattresses for the Spanos and blankets for their dogs.
The Red Cross offered money for food and a hotel, but the Spanos declined. “We thought someone far less fortunate than us could use their offer of assistance,” Chris Spano says.
The next morning, word spread as fast as the blaze itself, and gestures of goodwill came pouring in.
Around 9 a.m., Travis Norton – pastor at Community in Christ Lutheran in Cornelius, where the family has worshipped for years – showed up with $1,000 from the church emergency relief fund.
Neighbor Glenn Holden posted about the fire on Facebook and made a plea for gift cards for clothing, food and pet supplies; he contacted Huntersville’s fire and police departments and Town Hall to ask if they would do the same. They all found ways to help.
A friend loaned the Spanos a car. Staff and families at Southlake Christian Academy in Huntersville – where Pam has taught for 13 years – started providing meals and have not stopped. Since January, the Spanos have been in a partially furnished house in the Birkdale area; church members used a Target registry to fill it with necessities.
The family has received so many donations of clothing that they’re trying to give some back, although many of the donations have been anonymous, so they’re passing it along to charitable organizations such as Lydia’s Loft, a Huntersville ministry that provides free clothing to the needy.
Mark Wabalas, their subdivision’s homeowners association president, created a fundraising website to help with the Spanos’ expenses; almost $10,000 has been collected. In addition, Norton says church members donated more than $12,000.
“It’s unbelievable,” Pam says. “This is the kind of thing that renews your faith in people, because you always hear about the bad, but you don’t always hear about the good.”
Despite all of the goodwill, as the Spanos have laid in bed trying to sleep each night since the fire, they’ve felt twinges of emotional pain.
“You keep thinking of all the things that you’ve lost,” Pam Spano says.
Gone are the journals she kept about each of the girls when they were babies, and the paintings she and Chris had made of each of the girls when they were 12. All three of their daughters are accomplished athletes; gone are trophies Stephany and Bethany earned playing soccer at Southlake (Bethany now is on UNC Asheville’s team), and memorabilia from Kimberly’s days running for Syracuse University (she’s now using her last year of eligibility at UNC Charlotte).
Chris had a collection of more than 150,000 baseball cards. Not one was salvageable.
But someday, 9042 McDiarmid Lane in Huntersville will be their home again.
The new house, they say, will have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors everywhere. Photos and home videos will be backed up to external hard drives stored off-site. Important documents will be kept in a safe deposit box at a bank.
They’ll start new baseball card collections and new journals and new Christmas ornament collections, and they won’t take them for granted.
“We’re gonna replace certain things we have to replace,” Pam says. “But our lifestyle will probably be more cautious. Not that we went crazy before, but I think we have a different appreciation for what we have and what we don’t have now.
“Yeah, it’s hard, and yes, we’re sad, but people are so helpful and so giving – that’s something you can’t put a price tag on.”