Family displaced by fire in Colchester finds hope amid virus crisis

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Colchester — Anytime a family loses their home to a fire, they are forced to begin rebuilding their lives — collecting clothing donations to restock their wardrobe, replacing everyday products from shampoo to medications, and leaning on neighbors and friends for support.

But how does that process work in a time when many stores are closed, shelves are empty, and social distancing guidelines are in place?

For one Colchester family, surviving an electrical fire that destroyed their Gustafson Road home in the middle of the night last week, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been challenging but has left them with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

"All this on top of the pandemic and our struggle to replenish everything from salt and pepper to clothing — while stores are closing — has been difficult," Karen Gagnon wrote in a post on the All Things Colchester Facebook page. "Yet, our hearts are full."

Gagnon and her husband, Kevin, their son, John Luke, went to the Hampton Inn in Norwich on March 17 with nothing but the pajamas on their backs and their four pets — golden retriever Aries, Shih Tzu Brody and cats London and Sid.

Though their home is still standing, the interior suffered extensive fire, smoke and water damage, Gagnon said. Renovations are expected to take three to six months. The family lived for nearly a week at the Homewood Suites in Glastonbury, where they had to search online stores like Amazon for the items they needed to self-isolate. They now are renting a home in East Hampton.

While it hasn't been an easy transition, Gagnon said she and her family are just happy to be safe.

"I can't tell you how much it has changed my view on the world," she said. "There are so many bad things going on in the world, including the coronavirus, and everyone is complaining about being inconvenienced by having stores closed but my husband and I are saying 'Everything we need is here in this hotel room.'"

Just after midnight on March 17, Gagnon went upstairs to bed while her husband stayed up to watch TV. About an hour later, she was jolted awake when her C-PAP machine suddenly shut off. She looked around the room and noticed that her alarm and ceiling fan were off. She shouted to her husband to check on what she assumed was a blown fuse.

When Kevin Gagnon looked up the stairs toward their bedroom, he saw the ceiling engulfed in flames.

The family began spraying the ceiling with fire extinguishers and quickly called 911. Firefighters told them that the fire likely had been smoldering for days. If it had gotten any worse, the only exit from the bedroom would've been blocked by fire, Gagnon said.

Colchester Fire Marshal Sean Shoemaker said the fire originated in a fan in the attic, but the exact cause wasn't clear. "It was so damaged that I was unable to determine how it started," he said.

According to Colchester Deputy Fire Chief Don Lee, the fire was contained to the attic and quickly brought under control. The home suffered heavy smoke damage and will require repairs to the electrical system and rafters and joints in the attic, and insulation will need to be replaced, he said.

After watching their home go up in smoke in the dark of night, the Gagnons arrived at the Hampton Inn in Norwich about 4 a.m.

"We didn't have any food and we were so exhausted, all we wanted to just go sit down someplace and have a meal and we couldn't," Gagnon said. Restaurants were closed to dine-in seating due to the coronavirus, so, they tried to go buy some food.

"We made it to the grocery store only to find that they were out of things like meat and bread," Gagnon said. After grabbing some fast food, she began to brainstorm how to tackle being displaced during a global pandemic.

"I sat down and made this big list of things we needed because we walked out with the clothes on our backs, I needed everything from salt and pepper and everything to set up a kitchen to underwear," Gagnon said. "I planned on going to a TJ Maxx or Marshalls where I could get everything all at once, but they were closed because of coronavirus."

She ended up placing a large Amazon order, for items like pet food and boots, to be delivered to their Homewood Suites room.

After some rest, they returned to the scene of the fire to start insurance claims and inspections and were overwhelmed by the amount of support they received from friends and neighbors, even at a time when things are so uncertain and stressful for everyone.

"We were so grateful because literally an army of people descended on the house the next day," Gagnon said. An old boss offered the family a place to stay, neighbors came over with bags of sandwiches from a local deli, friends helped think of questions to ask insurance adjusters, neighbors offered to walk and watch their dogs.

Facing a few months before they can move back home, the family on Tuesday moved into their rental home. They've been able to go back into their home to see the damage of caved in ceilings and fallen insulation everywhere, but also were able to salvage a few items, including a favorite family portrait.

"We continue to feel so fortunate that we are alive, have each other and the support of our friends," Gagnon said. "The kindness, generosity and support has changed us forever."

t.hartz@theday.com

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