These were the first words Rebecca Stone heard shouted by her next- door neighbor, Wanda Cooley, when she answered her mobile phone around 4 p.m. on July 9, 2011.
Rebecca, husband Will, and their four daughters were in the middle of a five-week vacation in Montana, spending time with family and friends and looking forward to visiting Glacier National Park. They were strolling around downtown Bozeman, doing a little shopping at their favorite gift shop when Wanda called. She had just opened her garage to check on her cats during a violent thunderstorm when she noticed smoke coming from the Stones’ house. Since Will had recently been in Fayetteville to check in on his financial planning business, Wanda wanted to make sure he was not in the house. She had already called 911 and help was on the way. After assuring Wanda that all were safe in Montana, the Stone family took their girls outside of
the gift shop where they all sat down on the street curb to decide what to do.
Rebecca was shaking, but when she saw her two older girls in tears, she collected herself to focus on easing their fears. Will, “the rock” of the family, called a friend to go check on the house. Rebecca then called her good friend, Cindy Phillips. Cindy and her husband, Chuck, went right over to the Stones’ house and found firefighters from three fire stations, including nearby Seay Road Station, battling the blaze caused by a lightning strike, but to no avail. By the time firefighters had arrived, the upper level of the house was already fully engulfed. Thoughtful firefighters, however, were able to save some of Rebecca’s mother’s paintings, her china and crystal, and other special keepsakes, storing them in the garage for the family.
Throughout that long evening Will and Rebecca stayed on the phone, talking to the fire chief and insurance company and making arrangements to return home. Friends called to offer help and emailed photos of the damage. Although two weeks remained in their vacation, the family began packing up to leave the next day for the three-day drive back to Fayetteville.
Overwhelmed, Rebecca couldn’t sleep that night.
“I began thinking about my irreplaceables,” she recalled. “I lay in bed trying to remember where things were stashed – precious Mother’s Day cards, scrapbooks, our wedding album and my mother’s oil paintings. Finally I got up and started a list of things to look for, even though I pretty much knew they might be gone.”
Around 5 a.m. the next morning, the family loaded the car and started back home.
Rebecca Stone is a native of Atlanta. The middle of three children, she grew up in Sandy Springs and attended Riverwood High School. She smiles when she remembers her childhood – a safe and secure family life, filled with good memories. She was an active kid who enjoyed playing basketball, running track and roaming the neighborhood with her friends.
“My mom would ring a cowbell when it was time to come home!”
In 1995, Rebecca graduated from the University of Georgia with a BA in Education. She taught preschool for a few months in Athens before getting a job teaching fourth grade at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in College Park. In 1996, she met Will Stone at a singles Sunday School class at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead. They married in July, 1998, and in 1999 moved to Fayetteville, a location convenient to both of their jobs. When Rebecca became pregnant in 2000, she finished out the school year and retired from teaching to become a full-time mom.
Rebecca and Will’s first daughter, Katie, was born in July, 2000, and second daughter, Courtney, followed in March of 2003. While pregnant with their third daughter, Natalie, in 2006, the family moved to a neighborhood on the south side of Fayetteville. Their fourth daughter, Ivey, was born in May, 2009.
During the years of “having babies,” Rebecca started a home- based embroidery business which has expanded over the years. She particularly enjoys doing work for the local schools where her daughters attend, embroidering names on sports jersey and t-shirts. Rebecca volunteers as room mom at Sarah Harp Minter Elementary School and in the office at Whitewater Middle School.
The day after the fire, on the long drive back from Montana to Fayetteville, the Stone family cried at times but then would perk up and talk about the future.
“How do we start over?” “Do we rebuild?” “If we do rebuild, what do we want to change about the house?”
Katie’s 11th birthday was “celebrated” on the drive home. Before the fire, Rebecca had promised Katie money to redecorate her room. Since that was no longer an option, they allowed her to get her ears pierced instead!
For Will, the worst part of the drive back and of the whole experience was seeing the pain and distress Rebecca and the girls were experiencing.
“No husband or father wants to see this, and even though the situation is no one’s fault and could not have been prevented, it is hard not to feel in some way I had not properly provided for or protected my family,” Will says. “These thoughts are what kept me up at night or woke me up early in the morning.”
The family arrived back in Fayetteville on the evening of July 12. Their first stop was Wal-Mart, to purchase rain boots and flashlights, as suggested by the company that boarded up their house. They were warned about the debris they would find – inches of ash, water, broken glass, burned wall board and torn insulation. Their second stop was the home of Rebecca’s good friend, Cindy Phillips. Several other friends from their church, Fayette Presbyterian, met at Cindy and Chuck’s home and fixed a meal for the family. Will and Rebecca, anxious to view the damage to their house before dark, left the girls to eat with their friends and headed to their home.
Suited up in hard hats and orange hazard vests, nervous at what they would find, they entered the house. Rebecca recalls her first reaction was
surprise that the front of the house did not look too bad. Being a full brick house, the brick held up but the roof was gone and all the windows and doors were boarded up. The couple walked silently through the ruins of their four-bedroom, three story house.
“I had never seen the inside of a burned house before,” Rebecca recalls. “The smell inside was horrible, a mixture of wet insulation, water, smoke damage, and mold already setting in from the heat of July.”
“I remember thinking: this is where my babies slept! Thank goodness my babies weren’t here. Thank goodness we weren’t in the house when it caught on fire.”
The haphazard, varying degrees of damage surprised Rebecca. Courtney’s upstairs bedroom, the closest to the lighting strike that started to the fire, was completely destroyed, yet a nearby bathroom had little damage because the door was closed and protected from the flames. Towels were still hanging neatly on the towel rack and Dora, a bathtub toy still stood in the tub!
Will and Rebecca, joined by their pastor, Alex Moses, combed through the house for about an hour, looking for salvageable items. Friends brought the girls over, and Will and Rebecca let the older girls, Katie and Courtney, wearing protective gear, briefly enter the house. Their parents hoped the hard hats and vests would give them a sense of adventure, lighten the mood, and deflect some attention from their losses. Katie was delighted to discover her tooth fairy box, full of her baby teeth, some photos with friends and her fifth grade yearbook.
Losing your home and starting over is an emotional roller-coaster ride but there is little time to grieve when decisions need to be made and a million details addressed. The day after they arrived back home, Rebecca and Will met with staff from their insurance company which declared the house a total loss. They asked for an inventory of the contents of the house. Rebecca found it overwhelming to try and remember everything in the house, from expensive items to things as inconsequential as a toilet plunger.
Family and friends not only provided the Stones with meals but helped them sift through the ashes to find whatever could be salvaged from the fire. Rebecca was excited to discover her embroidery machine, the engine of her business, had survived and needed only a little cleaning. She also found her jewelry – her grandmother’s charm bracelet, a diamond necklace and other cherished items. Amazingly, Rebecca’s scrapbooks, photo albums, journal and other memorabilia were also in good condition. A professional moving company, FireStar, packed up the salvageable items, drying, cleaning, deodorizing, and storing everything for the family.
The Stone family stayed with the Phillips family for two nights and then moved over to another friend’s mother’s house for two weeks while she was away for the summer. Generous friends stocked this temporary home with food, drinks, toiletries and toys for the kids. In late July, the Stones moved into a rental house in the girls’ school district.
Rebecca often reflects on their nomadic life during those first weeks after the fire.
“We stayed in hotel rooms on the drive back from Montana, friends’ homes and a rental house, but we were always ‘home’ because we were all together. Wherever we were, we were truly ‘home’ because home is where your family is.”
Reflecting back on that challenging time, Cindy Phillips said, “We’ve known Rebecca and Will for several years and consider them our friends. They both have such a strong faith, and I believe that is how they got through such an awful situation. I remember going with
them and the girls over to the house once they returned. They asked if they could be left alone, as a family, to observe the destruction to their home. It was so moving to see their family, together, sifting through the debris. No tears, Rebecca and Will were so very strong. I’m sure there were many tears behind closed doors but for their girls, they were always strong – strong and faithful.”
After much research and soul-searching, the Stones decided to rebuild on the same site. They worked with a builder to design a floor plan to best suit the family’s needs, including a bedroom for each girl, a guest room and a bigger kitchen with large eating area for the family to gather. In May, 2012, construction began and they moved into their new home in October of that year.
Four and a half years later, life for the Stones has returned to “normal,” but Rebecca knows her whole family learned valuable lessons that changed their perspective about the meaning of “home” and what is important in life.
Katie, now age 16, reflects on the experience.
“It was sad and hard to understand at the beginning but we were very fortunate and everything worked out in the end.”
Courtney, now 13, agrees.
“When my house burned down, I was only eight years old. Being so young, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what truly happened. Looking back, it could have been worse – my dad could have been home, we could have been there, and luckily, we didn’t have any pets there. Now we have a beautiful, new, big home with many more memories to make.”