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Family pulls together in wake of house fire

News editor

Four days after the Friday fire that destroyed Gina Schaefer’s home at 321 W. Santa Fe St., she longed for a few minutes of peace, some respite from the relentless whirlwind of activity and attention.

“It becomes overwhelming,” she said. “The phone calls, the messages, everybody wants to help, but it’s overwhelming. You need time to let your mind relax.”

Relaxation and enjoyment were in her plans Friday as she and her 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, were driving to Lyons when a friend called to tell her the house was on fire.

“I’m driving, we’re in a good mood, we’re on the way to see good friends, and then you get a call like that and your whole world falls apart,” Schaefer said. “I thought, ‘It can’t be, we just left 35 minutes ago.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Neighbors reported the fire at 4:17 p.m., and by the time Marion firefighters arrived, streams of flame were shooting out of upstairs windows, and thick smoke shrouded the sun.

The fire started in the northwest corner of the house, Marion Fire Chief Mike Regnier said. Shortly after he arrived, windows on the side of the house blew out from the intense heat, letting in oxygen that fueled the flames even higher.

The fire was so intense, Regnier said, it forced firefighters into trying to control the blaze rather than extinguish it.

“We went on the defensive mode, because it wasn’t safe for anybody to go in the house,” Regnier said. “We tried to get it out, but focused on saving harm to people and other property.”

Schaefer experienced her first overwhelming moment when she arrived back in Marion, about 45 minutes after the fire was reported.

“I got so sick at the very beginning,” she said. “When I came into town I couldn’t even see the house, the smoke was so thick. I parked on the other side of the railroad tracks, and by the time I walked to the tracks I was so stressed I collapsed.”

Regnier called for assistance from Florence and Hillsboro. At one point, there were eight pieces of equipment and 32 volunteers battling the fire. Most were gone by 11 p.m., but some Marion volunteers stayed monitoring the house until mid-morning Saturday.

“I feel terrible they had to stay there all night,” Schaefer said. “They’re true heroes, they really are. Even though they’re volunteers, they know their stuff.”

Schaefer’s 20-year-old son Andrew wasn’t home when the fire started, and the family dogs were rescued, but the loss of two Persian cats has hit her hard.

“They were house cats, about 7 years old,” she said. “They would’ve been scared, they would’ve gotten disoriented. They didn’t deserve that. It feels like one of your kids.

“I know they’re sitting up there in heaven on my mom and grandmom’s laps. It’s the only way I can get through.”

Another loss she mourns are memories. Pictures of her children, her mother and grandmother, and others were stored in the basement. Schaefer said she’s certain if they didn’t burn that they’ve been ruined by flooding.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined, and an investigation is ongoing. With no answers, Schaefer has been left second-guessing herself.

“I don’t know what could’ve started it,” she said. “I had a little ceramic heater, I used it all the time when my chow had puppies. I had that going because it gets really cold in that room. I blame myself if that’s what caused it.”

The house was a total loss, Regnier said, as were the contents. Schaefer said Andrew just had the clothes he was wearing, while she and Elizabeth had a few more from having packed for the trip.

Still, Schaefer’s family is intact, and she’s grateful. All of the activity and emotions resulting from the fire have been difficult, but having each other helps.

“I think the kids are handling it,” she said. “In some ways they’re numb, in some ways they’re very sad. I don’t know if everything’s processed yet. We’ve leaned on each other, and we’ve been with some really good friends. We’ve got a lot of friends and prayers and love.”

Schaefer said the offers of help she’s received have been heartwarming, and that she is particularly grateful to those who responded to the fire.

“I want to thank everybody, and I want to praise the firemen, EMS, everybody that was there,” she said. “The house is gone, but they did everythhing they could. To stay and keep fighting when they knew they couldn’t save it, to me, they’re heroes. They really are.”

Last modified Feb. 19, 2015

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