Two holidays, two families, two house fires and two completely different experiences.
Just before the Thanksgiving holiday and just before Christmas, two Bulloch County families were faced with the ultimate family nightmare — their houses burned down. But, the two families are now on two completely different paths. One family had done everything they could to protect themselves from the fire, but the fire came anyway. The other family’s Christmas tree was responsible for starting the fire. One family has been supported by a heart-felt outpouring of assistance from various areas of the community. The other family has faced their tragedy largely alone.
Mary Tillis and her family lived in a double-wide trailer out on Pioneer Trail, off Cowboy Way, near Portal. Mary lived there with her husband, Clevy, their two daughters, Kelly and Brittney, their son, Chris, and their grandson, D.J. Their house caught on fire the Friday before Christmas.
“We had left on vacation earlier that morning and about 3:30 Friday morning, because my other son lives right down the street, he told me that the house was on fire,” said Tillis.
According to the Portal Fire Chief Christopher Ivey it is presumed that a string of Christmas lights on the Christmas tree caught the tree on fire. He said the tree was were the hottest part of the fire occurred.
“I had the standard bulbs with the little star around them,” said Tillis. “I bought them at a Christmas sale last year.”
Fortunately for the family, no one was at home at the time. They had already arrived in Tennessee to a vacation spot they had visited over the summer. They had liked it so much, they decided to go back and spend their Christmas holiday there.
“We read about their Christmas show that we wanted to see, so that’s what we did,” said Tillis. “As a result, nobody was home, thank God, because we’d have all been asleep at that time of the morning.”
As if the fire wasn’t burden enough, Tillis’ son, Chris, has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma - a form of cancer affecting the lymph nodes. He had recently moved back in with his parents due to his worsening condition.
“The doctors give him until February, but that call is in God’s hands,” said Tillis. “He’s already held on longer than normal - I thank God for that.”
To make matters even worse, the few donations they’ve received were being stored in a small travel trailer that survived the fire. The trailer was broken into this week.
Since the fire, the family stayed at the Stiles Inn Motel, thanks to the American Red Cross and a woman named Jeanette, who put them up for a few nights. They’ve also been using the local Waffle House on South Main as their base of operations, meeting a couple of times a day for family meals. With nearly all of their belongings crammed in the back of a rental car, the family is unsure where they will go from here.
“We’re trying to figure out what to do – this is a whole lot to take in. One morning you have a nice home, the next morning you have nothing,” said Tillis. “We lost every bit of our Christmas - we lost everything period. It burnt to the ground – no dishes, no linens, no pots and pans, nothing.”
Fortunately, the Tillis’ had insurance on the trailer, so it should be replaced, but they’re not certain that their belongings will be covered. They’re still having conversations with their insurance agent.
Tommy and Cindy Strickland and their teenage son Eli lived in a house on North Main Street that was well over 100 years old. Their house caught on fire the Monday before Thanksgiving.
“It had gotten cold before Thanksgiving and our gas furnace was down for a few days, while we were waiting for a computer part. So, I was running the fireplace just to keep the edge off,” said Tommy.
According to Tommy, the state and insurance inspectors concluded that there was a failure in the chimney. During the night, the grout failed, creating a small hole in the chimney which acted like a blow-torch - eventually igniting in the wall space.
“We were asleep and Cindy heard the smoke alarm go off and she woke me up. I ran down stairs and had my son bring the hose into the house,” said Tommy. “It was a surreal moment, because nobody in their right mind brings a hose in the house. I even pinched off the hose, so it wouldn’t spray all over the place - and I opened the doors on the fireplace and put the fire out. Then, I started spraying the wall down and, at that point, the entire room filled with thick black smoke.”
When that happened, they called 911 and exited the house, huddled together and prayed. The Statesboro Fire Department was on the scene within five minutes, Cindy said.
At first, it appeared that the fire would be controlled, but then the house back-drafted - blowing clothing, magazines and whatever was close to the windows out into the yard. Tommy later found a pair of his jeans 40 yards from the house. Fortunately, the firefighters who were in the house knew the explosion was coming and had begun to exit the house. Still, the explosion caught them on the stairs, blowing them into the walls and knocking one firefighter unconscious and burning another on the calf and ear. No one was seriously injured.
“The firefighters worked their tails off,” said Tommy.
At that point, when flames started licking out of the house and they knew the fight might be lost, Cindy didn’t want to stay and watch, so Tommy took her to her son’s house in Statesboro. When Tommy and his son, Eli, came back to the scene, they sat together while Eli filmed the fire with his video camera.
“While we sat there, [Eli] turned to me and said, ‘Dad, I’m just grateful that you and mom taught me not to be materialistic.’ We never set out to do that,” said Tommy. “I didn’t know what to say - it was touching.”
Not long after that Tommy turned to his neighbor and said scripture requires us to count these trials and tribulations - to count it all joy. By that time, dawn was breaking and the real miracle of the day began to reveal itself to the Stricklands.
“Within 30 minutes all these people that we knew - most were on the way to church and were in their Sunday clothes - they were there to comfort us. For Cindy and I, God took away all sense of loss, remorse and regret - it was just gone,” said Tommy. “We didn’t have any of that to deal with. I think that was God’s answer - I know he heard me say ‘Count it all joy.’”
“I never really thought about how he demonstrates his love to us, but this is very clear to me now. It’s through people. People that you know and people that you don’t know - believers and even unbelievers. In the course of that day, hundreds of people came by and helped,” he said.
Within hours, people from all over were bringing them clothes and other supplies. Schools, churches, individuals, business - a lot of people donated whatever they could. “The majority of people were just acquaintances or even people we didn’t even know,” said Cindy.
Tommy and Cindy shared what they thought was a story truly indicative of the event.
“One of the coolest stories was that Lee Eckles was driving down the road and he knew of the fire, but he just didn’t want to intrude upon us. But he said he could not drive by, so he just pulled in the driveway and said that God had told him to get out. Then he was urged to put his hand in his pocket - and out of his pocket he pulled a set of keys. Well, they were to his mother’s house - she had recently moved into an assisted living arrangement - he handed them to Cindy and said, ‘Here’s the keys to my mother’s house. You can move in today, if you want.’ The house and property adjoins our property, directly behind our house. So, literally within hours of not having a house, we had a place to stay. When we went in, it was so like our house, it instantly felt like home.”
Tommy said he was really struggling with accepting all the help, when Cindy jumped in.
“(It was tough accepting help), especially from tons of people that you barely know. The accountability factor is ‘I don’t deserve this, I don’t know why you’re doing this. What can I do back for you?’ There’s nothing - especially considering how many people gave. It’s not anything we’ve done. It just happened.
It was just an outpouring of help and caring,” Cindy said.
Tommy said that he hopes the outpouring that he and his family received doesn’t embitter anyone else who may have gone through a similar situation without the same level of help.
“You said there was another family who was burned out,” said Tommy. “I think letting people know of their situation will be a help, because there are so many people out there who want to help - that’s clearly the case.”
shirt pants shoe
Mary (wife) XL 18/20 10 (ladies)
Kelly (12) L 14/15 10
Brittney (14) L 14/15 10
Clevy (husband) XL 34W/30L 11 (mens)
Chris (30) 2XL 34W/30L 14
D.J. (2) 2T 2T 6 (toddler)
Donations can be made to:
- Heritage Bank account - Emergency funds for Mary Tillis.
- 3002 Cowboy Way, Portal GA 30450
- Donations can be dropped by Collins Lake - Horizon West park (Portal - Left at caution light, 2nd dirt road - Right at Brack Road, go straight, Brack becomes Cowboy Way)
If you have any questions or wish to donate, Mary Tillis can be reached at (912) 687-2295.