January 9, 2014

Tragic fire spurs tremendous show of community support


During the holidays, many families gather around a crackling fire and bask in the warmth of good company, but, sadly, the flickering flames spotted in the Hooper home in Avon shortly after Christmas were no sign of merriment.

Though the young family of three suffered a devastating loss of their home in a tragic fire, the Hoopers have since been overwhelmed by a bounty of community support.

“Everybody has really come together and helped us out,” reflected Kerry Hooper Jr.  “It has been something really good that has come out of something so terrific.”

Hooper, an employee of the North Carolina Department of Transportation Ferry Division and vice-president and lieutenant in the Avon Fire Department, was at home studying for a chief engineer exam on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 28, when he first detected the signs of a fire.

Just after 8 o’clock, Hooper caught a whiff of smoke while talking with his wife, Rebecca, over the phone.  As he walked toward the front of the house, he noticed smoke coming through the cracks around the front door.

Rebecca Hooper, who had smelled burning plastic outside their home earlier in the evening, believed -- as was often the case -- that a neighbor’s outdoor fire was the source of the smoke, yet she encouraged her husband to investigate further.

“When I opened the front door, I was immediately hit with smoke in the face,” said Kerry.  “And when I looked down through the porch, I saw a small fire on the garage wall downstairs.”

Rebecca was shocked when Kerry announced that their house, and not the neighbor’s kindling, was on fire.

They both immediately sprung into action.

Leaving their 9-month-old son, Ervin, with her family, Rebecca jumped into her car and headed toward the house while Kerry placed the call to Dare Central 911.

“This is Lieutenant 46 and I’ve got smoke and flames showing at my residence,” said Kerry over his radio. “I need Avon and Buxton fire departments paged now. I need help here at my house.”

Then, Kerry said, he ran downstairs hoping to put the fire out with the garden hose, but, upon seeing that it had already melted and that embers were falling on an old couch stored in the garage, he began sprinting toward the Avon Fire Department.

Initially, Kerry thought he could grab a truck and put the fire out himself. However, before making it to the fire department -- less than half a mile from his house -- Kerry saw that the couch had ignited and flames were licking the bottom of the porch.

After donning his firefighting gear and returning to the scene, Kerry realized the severity of the situation.

“There were flames going through the roof and through the windows,” recalled Kerry.  “And I knew right then that everything was gone.”

The Avon, Buxton, and Frisco fire departments arrived shortly thereafter and began fighting the blaze that had rapidly taken hold of the Hooper home.  

Hoping to prevent the fire from spreading, Kerry manned an attack line aimed at the neighbor’s house, while the other first responders focused their attention on the raging fire.

Fortunately, the neighboring house remained unscathed, but despite the best efforts of all three fire departments, the flames spread too quickly throughout the Hoopers’ house and the structure sustained major, irreparable damage.

Kerry has worked as a fireman for over 10 years and believes his house was consumed by flames more quickly than any other house fire he has seen.

“I got down there in 14 minutes and I didn’t see anything,” said Rebecca in agreement.  “That’s how fast the house burnt up and that’s how fast they put it out.”

The couple praised the work done by the firemen who responded to Kerry’s desperate plea for help and were grateful that no one was injured.

“Material things can be replaced, lives can’t,” said Kerry.  “I’m just so thankful to God that my wife and son weren’t there.”

Yet, as the couple surveyed their fire-ravaged home, they realized that everything was gone.

“It was pretty catastrophic to see that damage inside,” recalled Kerry.

The front of the house, including the nursery, bore the brunt of the flames, while the two back bedrooms were pitch black from severe heat and smoke damage.

All of their clothes, toys, and even appliances had melted, becoming nearly unrecognizable.  Rebecca struggled to identify the metal structure sitting on the front porch as the remains of Ervin’s stroller.  

Countless sentimental items were destroyed in the blaze, as well.

Rebecca was extremely distressed by the loss of a toy that contained a recording of her heartbeat, which would soothe Ervin to sleep as an infant.  

“Johnny Conner, of the Buxton Fire Department, went out of his way to search for the music box,” said Rebecca.  “It was melted, but he brought it to me to show that he had found it, even though I couldn’t use it.”

The Hoopers were especially grateful to Conner and the Buxton Fire Department for their help salvaging a few other precious items that evening and the following morning.

And these acts of kindness were the first of many to come.

In fact, the list of folks throughout the community, and even the country, who have rallied around the Hoopers following the devastating fire is a lengthy one.  

“We’ve been keeping track,” said Kerry.  “And I’ve got pages and pages of names of people that have helped us.  Everybody has been so good to us and it’s been so amazing.”

Immediately after the fire, people began contacting the family to help find them housing and, within two days, they had received enough clothing for all three of them.

Folks also began collecting monetary donations at local businesses, through the mail, and even through a website dedicated to the Hoopers.  A bake sale was held at Conner’s Supermarket in Buxton, both shifts of the Hatteras Inlet Ferry Operations collected donations, and several other benefits will be held in the future to support the family.

They have been overwhelmed and truly touched by the amount of support the community has provided.  

Just as nothing could have prepared Kerry and Rebecca to see their son’s Christmas presents melted to the carpet, nothing could have prepared them for the level of compassion and support shown by the community.

“Thank you is not even enough,” said Rebecca when trying to explain their appreciation.  “Thank you is just not the word. It’s not even big enough.”

The couple send special thanks to Kerry and Kenny Brite, Michelle Palazzolo, Claudia Laskow, and to all of the fire departments that responded.

They may still be reeling, but they now have the foundation to begin to rebuild.

The Hoopers are currently living in a relative’s rental home in Rodanthe as they await news of their old home, which the homeowner plans to rebuild. The cause of the fire has been ruled “undetermined.” Kerry continues to study for the chief engineer exam and both hope to give back to their community in the future.

“This has been a humbling experience,” said Kerry.  “It makes you humble, makes you proud, and, most of all, makes you grateful.”

To make a donation, mail a check payable to the Avon Fire Department to P.O. Box 190, Avon, NC 27915 or online at www.giveforward.com under “Help Kerry and Rebecca Hooper.”

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