Little girl met her match

Debera Ruggio Donovan outside her home in Griswold Tuesday evening. Donovan, who set her family home ablaze while playing with matches when she was 6, wants to raise awareness among children about the dangers of fire.
Debera Ruggio Donovan outside her home in Griswold Tuesday evening. Donovan, who set her family home ablaze while playing with matches when she was 6, wants to raise awareness among children about the dangers of fire. tim cook/the day Buy Photo

Little Debbie Ruggio struck a forbidden match, marveled at the blue at the center of the flame and blew it out.

She lit another one and touched it to a paper napkin, expecting the flame to "stay on top" of the napkin, to burn bigger, bluer.

A month earlier, she had turned 6 years old.

The flame devoured the napkin, which she dropped, and ignited the couch where she was sitting. From there, the fire spread.

Thirty-nine years later, Debera Ruggio Donovan hasn't extinguished the memory.

The story begins Thursday afternoon, Dec. 30, 1971. Debbie's mom was grocery shopping, and Debbie's 8-year-old sister, Michele, was at a friend's apartment. Debbie was staying with a neighbor two doors down from the Ruggios' apartment in the same Litton Court building in the city of Groton.

"I just got bored. I wanted to go home," she recalls. "My neighbor said OK, but don't stay long.

"I was so excited. Christmas was earlier that week (the previous Saturday actually). My birthday had been Nov. 29. One of the gifts I'd gotten for my birthday was a bathing suit. I went home, put my bathing suit on and called my girlfriend to come and see my bathing suit.

"I showed her I could light a match - and blew it out. That was that, my friend had to go home.

"Once she left, I decided to light one more ..."

She backtracks now, filling in a detail: When she first entered the apartment, she plugged in the Christmas tree lights, which had a bulb missing. Maybe she just had to flick a switch to turn them on. Either way, she says, "I wasn't supposed to do that, either."

The fire's speed amazed her.

"I never expected it to travel so fast," she says. "I dropped the napkin. It went under the couch, which caught fire right away.

"I didn't know what to do. I'm in my bathing suit. Do I go upstairs and change my clothes, or what?

"It's spreading, and I'm standing there in my bathing suit, and the fire is going this way and that and getting bigger and bigger.

"I went to run up the stairs but the fire was crackling - it was so loud it kind of stopped me. I came back down. Flames are everywhere.

"I'm standing there, I guess I'm paralyzed, and it's like the voice of God - I call it the 'man voice' - says, 'GET OUT! GET OUT NOW!'

"I grabbed the front door and let myself out. I was screaming."

She went to the apartment immediately next door, which was not the one where she was supposed to be staying. She pounded on the door, standing there in her bathing suit, watching as fire consumed the contents of the apartment she had fled.

The next part is a blur. She remembers people and sirens and being wrapped in a blanket. "I don't think they understood why I was in my bathing suit," she says.

Strangely, she doesn't remember the firetrucks that came. But they did, along with 29 men from two fire companies. It's all in The Day's Dec. 31, 1971, account of the incident. "Girl, 6, Escapes Blaze," reads the headline. Under a photo of Debbie's mother picking through the apartment's charred debris, the caption begins, "NOT MUCH LEFT."

When the fire was out, Debbie had a heart-to-heart with a man on the scene.

"I remember he had brunette hair, a blue uniform, and he was really, really nice to me," she says. "Somebody made it clear that we had to be alone. No one was allowed near us. He was down on one knee, and he seemed the same height as me. He asked me to tell him what happened.

"I got the idea of the Christmas tree. I said I plugged in the Christmas tree, and I think I told him about the missing bulb.

"He asked, 'You weren't playing with matches?'

"I said, 'No.' I remember putting my head down. I couldn't look at him."

The lie haunted Debbie for a year or two.

Then, on a trip to Block Island when she was 7 or 8 years old, she couldn't keep the truth to herself anymore. She woke her sister up and told her about the match, the napkin and the runaway fire. Her sister advised her to wait until morning to tell their mother.

"I remember my mother saying, 'I'm proud of you for telling the truth,'" she says. "I told her I was just too afraid when it happened."

If the belated admission assuaged the guilt she felt over lying, it did nothing to dim the memory of her childhood misadventure. Every once in a while, she says, she is almost overcome by the smell of fire - the fire.

But she's been dogged by something else, and it's the reason she's coming clean in so public a way, telling a reporter a story that's been kept inside the family for 39 years.

Her voice thickens, and she tears up. She had no concept of fire back in 1971, she says. She'd been told not to play with matches, of course, but not what could happen if she did. Little Debbie Ruggio had no idea how out-of-control a flame could burn, how quickly and how much damage could result.

"It was just me being a kid," she says, looking back. "I practically burned our house down. But if a 7- or an 8- or a 9-year-old reads or hears about this story, maybe it will keep them from lighting a match."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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