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Ledyard — If Brian Osborne learned one thing from the fire that destroyed his house but spared his children, his girlfriend and the family's two dogs, it was this: "Life's too short. There's no point waiting when everything can be taken away tomorrow," he said.
One of the only items that survived the wind-driven blaze at 15 Chapman Lane in Gales Ferry on Monday was the engagement ring Osborne planned to give his girlfriend, Megan Hunley, but hadn't yet. He said he'll never forget a firefighter finding the ring and holding out his gloved hand with the charred box. The ring was untouched.
"I cried," Hunley said. "I just cried."
On Saturday, the couple married in front of the burnt house, surrounded by about 40 friends and members of the Gales Ferry Volunteer Fire Co.
Hunley said that before the fire, she'd wanted Osborne to ask her father's permission before they married. Then it all changed.
"I could have lost him that day and that would have been devastating," she said. "And that was enough for me to realize nothing else matters."
The couple married dressed in the clothes they escaped the fire in: Hunley in pajama pants and an Under Armour shirt; Osborne in soot-stained shorts and a T-shirt. The children, Hanna, 12, and Carter, 8, wore sweats, gym shorts and T-shirts. Their friends also wore whatever they were dressed in the day of the fire.
The blaze tore through the house swiftly, burning about one-third of the structure, enough to make it a total loss.
The family was eating lunch at the time. Osborne said he'd been cleaning out the garage earlier and had burned some cardboard outside, then put the fire out with water. He said firefighters suspected an ember may have been lit and blown back into the garage.
The couple said they don't know how long the house had been burning. But when they looked through the sunroom window, "it was just black smoke" outside, Osborne said. Hunley rushed out with the children and the family's two Golden retrievers. Osborne ran out and tried to extinguish the fire with water from a hose. He realized in seconds it was hopeless.
Then he ran back in to grab the keys to his truck because he feared it would explode.
The fire was first reported at 1:16 p.m. Gales Ferry Fire Chief Anthony Saccone said firefighters arrived to find flames blazing on the outside of the Cape Cod-style home and pushing through blown-out windows toward the inside. The sunroom had been destroyed completely before firefighters arrived.
The family's black-and-white cat, Bugsy, died in the fire.
Later that afternoon, firefighters searched for items that were precious to the family. They found an 8-by-10 picture of Osborne's mother, who died in 2010, and the gold charm bracelet that belonged to Hunley's grandmother.
Osborne also told a firefighter of the small blue box on top of the headboard in the bedroom.
"Then when he came out, I can remember it so vividly," Osborne said. "He had a big leather glove on, like for fighting fires, and he held his hand out, and I just saw it sitting there." He opened it, found the ring, and dropped it in his pocket.
Osborne and Hunley met in 2000, dated on and off, went their separate ways and married other people. They they both divorced. A mutual friend, Cori Miller, who'd known Osborne for years and went to college with Hunley, put the couple back in touch after she heard both were single again.
"I thought they always belonged together," Miller said.
Billy Daly, a friend who met Osborne when they both lived in Groton, has been having the family stay in his house since the fire. Daly found a justice of the peace, a photographer and cooked half the food for the reception.
He understands knowing when someone is the right person, he said. "My wife and I knew each other two weeks and I proposed," he said. They've been married 15 years and have three children.
On Wednesday morning, less than two days after the fire, Osborne asked Hunley to go downstairs with him where they could be alone. Then he asked her to marry him.
They weren't 18 and he wasn't waiting, he said. Osborne, a sonar technician on the USS Springfield, turned 34 on Thursday. His wife, a police officer in Indiana, is 33.
Hunley felt the same. "After you go through something like that, you realize life is short and I didn't want to wait anymore," she said. "All that mattered was he showed up and we were both there."