A blazing inferno!
That was the first thing that came to mind when I learned a grease fire swept through our home incinerating everything in its path. There was devastating destruction throughout the two-story dwelling.
My dad was rushed to the hospital with smoke inhalation and my two sisters made it out just before the flames burned through the floor of their second story bedrooms.
That was the news we received upon our return to college almost 900 miles away.
Our family had been living in Central City, Pa., a small town on one of the mountaintops in Somerset County, for nearly a year. My brother, John, and I had been attending Evangel University in Springfield, Mo. I was a freshman and my older brother was in his second year of higher education after transferring from Memphis State University.
We had been home from college for Spring Break for a 10-day stretch in mid-March 1985. My mom and Sandy Gibbons, my best friend’s mother, took turns driving for nearly 14 hours to return us to our campus.
Mind you, this was back in the day when cell phones were nonexistent. So, our final destination was the only place for anyone to leave word for us as to what transpired while we were in route to the Queen City of the Ozarks.
Following the Sunday morning service at Pentecostal Tabernacle Assembly of God, where my father was the pastor, he made dinner for himself and my two younger sisters.
Apparently, French fries was part of the noon meal that day. Because the make-shift French fryer was the culprit of the blaze that destroyed our home, according to the fire marshal.
You see, our actual French fryer had gone to appliance heaven some months back. Since that time, my parents were improvising, or rednecking it, if you will, with the French fry basket and a pot.
Since the grease in the pot had cooled and hardened by the end of the meal, my dad turned the stove burner under the pot back on to melt the grease so he could place the basket back in the pot. I’m not sure why we did it that way. But, nonetheless, that was the routine when it came to the make-shift French fryer.
At any rate, after turning on the burner, my dad went into the TV room (do they still call them that?), just off the kitchen and opposite the master bedroom and the small laundry room in between.
Do you even have to ask what he was tuning in to watch? Mind you, it was mid-March. March Madness — college basketball.
Well, I guess whatever game he was watching wasn’t very interesting because he fell asleep. Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for my dad to doze off while watching television on a Sunday afternoon. While he was off to dreamland and my sisters played upstairs in their rooms, the hot grease oozed over the top of the pot and drizzled down to the open flame below.
It’s hard to say how long he was sleeping before he woke to the sounds of dishes shattering in the kitchen cupboards above the stove courtesy of the intense heat of the flames.
When my dad came into the kitchen, the fire had spread around to the other wall of cupboards by the sink and had incinerated the curtains at the window. There was also a thick fog of black smoke due to the grease.
He grabbed the first thing he saw — one of my sisters’ coats — to attempt to extinguish the spreading flames. But the fire was too far gone. There was no way he could put the fire out himself.
Since the kitchen was directly below my youngest sister’s bedroom, my dad raced through the house and yelled up the stairs for the younger siblings to get out of the house because it was on fire.
I can only imagine what went through their minds as they bolted from their rooms without giving it a second thought, leaving all their earthly possessions behind.
My little sister just crossed the threshold of her doorway in the nick of time as flames shot up through the floor. My dad didn’t have to tell them twice to get out of the house on the double.
The fire trucks and ambulance were on their way when a nearby neighbor called emergency services after seeing flames coming out the windows and roof.
Panic-stricken, my sisters began to cry because their cats ran back into the burning house. My dad followed them into the entry off the kitchen and was able to bring them back out safely placing them in my sisters arms.
Although the volunteer firefighters were able to extinguish the fire, the house was deemed a total loss — with major structural damage to the back half of the house near the kitchen and heavy smoke damage to the rest of the interior, including the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom.
Since my dad attempted to put out the fiery blaze himself and rescue a couple of felines in the process, he had inhaled a high level of smoke and had to be rushed to the nearest hospital by ambulance some 10 miles away.
My sisters and their kitty cats went to stay with a family from our church until my mom could return from Missouri and other arrangements could be made.
I still get choked up every time I think of that day even though it was well over 30 years ago. Because that is the day I almost lost my dad forever. And I wasn’t ready for that just yet.
Needless to say, I was so happy to see my dad the day he came to pick us up from university at the end of the semester. I ran to him and gave him the biggest hug ever; and I didn’t want to let go.
Mark S. Price is a former city government/county education reporter for The Sampson Independent. He currently resides in Clinton.