Mother, son struggle after losing home to fire

Ken Willett of Waterford on Sunday visits the home that he shared with his mother, Toni Photie. The home was destroyed by fire in February.

Waterford - Yellow caution tape still hung Sunday from the gate at the entrance of the dirt road leading to the charred house at 6½ Josan Drive.

The tape was first placed there on Feb. 9, when a late afternoon fire consumed the house, leaving a mother and son with little more than the clothes on their backs.

More than two months later, Ken Willett, 56, and his mother Rosa "Toni" Photie, 87, are still piecing their lives back together after losing the home they had lived in for roughly 50 years.

"I miss everything about it," Photie said Sunday while sitting in the passenger seat of her son's car during her first visit to the property since the fire.

"I can't explain it," she added quietly. "You know, the fire keeps running through my head."

Willett and Photie spent the night of the fire at the house of their neighbor, Stephanie Hughes. They said help from the community has since been critical in making their difficult transition easier.

"The way things fell into place after the fire is phenomenal," said Willett, an HIV prevention counselor at York Correctional Center in East Lyme.

He said people cooked them meals and gave them clothing and other necessities. Wayside Furniture and Sleep Shop in Waterford donated two mattresses and the Salvation Army gave them a gift card, he said.

After a week at a Motel 6 that was paid for with funds from the American Red Cross, Hughes, the neighbor who also is the property manager at Eagle Point Apartments in New London, secured for the pair a two-bedroom apartment in the complex, according to Willett.

He ducked under a strip of caution tape Sunday as he led a tour of the destroyed six-room ranch. He said the fire started when the furnace burst into flames, spreading through the house and consuming virtually all of the family's belongings.

Barefoot, Willett and his mother got out safely with their dog, according to Hughes, but they never found their cat. Willett said the family may rebuild the house or may just sell the property.

The first room in the house was Willett's bedroom as a child, until his sister moved out, he said. He walked across the damp embers Sunday to the dining room. To the right were cabinets filled with dishes, now blackened, a collection belonging to Photie. In the center of the room sat a table.

"I remember so many dinners with our family from Brooklyn," around that table, Willett said later.

An insurance snafu has complicated the replacement of the destroyed items, Willett said. In December or January, he said, he had received a letter from his insurance company stating it would no longer provide coverage for properties in Connecticut. He assumed the coverage would end at the end of 2014. He later discovered that coverage was terminated in January.

The result was that the contents of the house were not insured, though the structure itself was covered through the mortgage lender's insurance, according to Willett.

Hughes said the insurance shortfall is one reason she and a group of Willett's co-workers, friends and neighbors have planned a fundraiser for late next month.

"Just imagine your whole life just wiped out in a matter of four hours," she said.

The event, which will include dinner, live music, a silent auction and raffles, is set for 7 p.m., May 23 at Langley's Restaurant at Great Neck Country Club. Tickets are $20.

Aside from community support, Photie said, a sense of humor helps she and her son cope.

Just before heading back to the apartment to make Easter dinner, she stepped out of the car to mention that she especially missed her hat collection.

Willett asked her whether she wanted to go into the house, but she declined.

"You wanna see my room? I didn't clean it," he quipped.

Toni Photie of Waterford on Sunday visits the home that she shared with her son, Den Willet. The home was destroyed by fire in February.
Toni Photie of Waterford on Sunday visits the home that she shared with her son, Den Willet. The home was destroyed by fire in February.

If you go

WHAT: Fundraising dinner with live music, a silent auction and raffles

WHEN: 7 p.m., May 23

WHERE: Langley's Restaurant at Great Neck Country Club, Waterford.

HOW MUCH: $20 per person


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