Sifting through the ashes

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:51 AM

Davis and her partner, Scott Zerbe, huddled Friday afternoon against the freezing wind and snow that whipped through the smashed-out windows in what had been their Crockery Township home. They smiled as they found an odd item that had survived the fire, but they became sad as they talked about what was lost.

The couple had lived there for just two months before fire gutted the inside of the house on Nov. 15. They were renting the house on 136th Avenue, just north of M-104, from Marcus Lee.

Zerbe woke up just after 1 a.m. and smelled smoke. He said the smoke was so thick he could hardly see.

Zerbe woke Davis and they rushed out of the house. Zerbe herded their pets out the south side door as Davis rushed through the living room and out the slider.

Davis said she saw fire shooting out of the bathroom.

“It was crackling so loud, it was terrifying,” she said.

The couple said they heard the faint sound of the smoke detector as they evacuated the house, but it was barely detectable over the noise of the fire.

Firefighters from several departments responded to the scene and found the back of the house engulfed in flames. The additional help was called in because the departments are usually short of staff on Nov. 15, the opening day of firearm deer-hunting season, Crockery Township Fire Chief Gary Dreyer said.

The fire was under control in about an hour and completely out by 2:30 a.m.

Fire officials initially thought the fire was caused by an ashtray being emptied into a trash can in the bathroom on the north side of the house. The subsequent investigation revealed that wasn’t the case.

“It actually appears to have been started in the wall by the fireplace,” Dreyer said. “They had a fire in that fireplace 24 hours earlier. There was a chimney problem — fire got behind the brick and smoldered. There was no sign of ashes from cigarettes in that waste basket.”

Dreyer said the fire traveled up the walls and into the attic, eventually dropping through a vent in the bathroom. That’s why it looked like it started in the bathroom, he said.

“The fire was active in the attic area for an extended length of time before it finally broke through,” Dreyer said.

The heat from the fire will actually quiet a smoke detector when it gets near it, Dreyer said. He said it was important to make sure there are smoke detectors throughout the house, preferably those wired together electronically — so, if one goes off, they all go off.

Dreyer said Zerbe and Davis were lucky.

“Had they not woken up from the smoke, they may have suffered from smoke inhalation and it may have been a fatality," he said.

The couple tied up their dog, Katy, outside as searched through the rubble again on Friday. Katy had been located the day after the fire. One of their cats, Scrappy, had also been located.

Zerbe said he is nearly certain the other cat had gotten out the door during the fire.

“I’ve looked all over and haven’t found him,” he said. "The cat is a large, orange male. A cat carrier sits by a tree, waiting for him."

“He’s an outdoor cat,” Davis added. “Maybe somebody has already found him.”

Davis said her keys and purse were sitting on a table by the door at the time of the fire. The purse was gone, but Davis did salvage her partly burnt driver’s license and $13 in burnt cash.

On Friday, she dug up her son’s skateboard and her melted, hardened coat. Zerbe pulled out some pans that he could save, as well as his cooking knives. A burnt label and some pistachios were all that remained of a well-stocked pantry.

“We had just spent $350 that morning on groceries for Thanksgiving, Christmas and in-between,” Zerbe said.

Davis said they pulled out some water-damaged boxes filled with photo albums. Framed pictures of her children that had been hanging all around the house were destroyed in the fire.

The couple has been staying with friends and family since the night of the fire.

Davis said her employer replaced her fire-damaged uniforms, and they were given vouchers from the American Red Cross to buy clothing and other supplies.

“The main thing right now is to find housing,” Davis said.

Both Davis and Zerbe said they're thankful they have jobs and will be able to pay rent. The hard part will be paying for a security deposit and first month’s rent, Zerbe said.

To help the couple, contact Pastor Timothy Winkel at Grace Lutheran Church in Muskegon at 231-777-3011. Donations may be sent to the church, care of Winkel, at 2651 Shettler Road, Muskegon, MI 49444.

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