“For a moment I thought ‘If we just stay here someone will come in and get us, rescue us.'"
A fire started by faulty wiring on May 16, 2017 at Topsail Reef condos in North Topsail Beach left three people with a huge emotional toll and virtually no belongings.
A year later one of the residents, who dealt with nearly complete loss of her belongings and other property damages, said she is in a better place - but it wasn't necessarily an easy road.
A mental toll
“Here I am, a mental health care professional and I am shocked by how long this process takes,” said Deb Garner, who works as a Military Family and Life counselor (MFLAC) and whose home was destroyed by the fire. “I deal with military families and counseling, so I knew a fair amount on PTSD - I’m a clinical social worker - but when it comes to something happening to you, any intellectual knowledge you have is of very little value,” Garner said.
Luckily, Garner's Marine Corps clients were understanding about the process. Many Marines told her they were glad she was willing to be transparent, that she recognized even though she does this kind of work for others she was able to realize she needed help, and she asked for it.
Replacing her belongings came with its own set of difficulties for Garner.
"Every season I'd remember something that I would have been wearing - like I need to wear this blue sweater today - and then I'd realize it was gone," Garner said.
While her husband's insurance policy helped with the cost of replacement, she explained how having to remember and catalog her things was a painful process. She had to quickly come up with a list of everything she lost, and some of her things she said were more sentimental, making them harder to replace.
"I had a mug from Anchorage, Alaska that I brought to every assignment with me and it was gone," she said.
Pat McCormick, also an MFLAC, who lived in the building adjacent to where the fire started, said the ordeal was startling, even without the property damage or losses that Garner dealt with.
McCormick said she brought Garner to her unit once the fire was extinguished and took some time to comfort her.
“There’s smoke smudges still on my wall where she reached over,” McCormick said with a laugh.
Not long after the fire, McCormick said electricians were sent in to inspect the wiring in each unit, as well as the smoke detectors. In terms of preparedness, McCormick said she thinks all the steps were followed by the renters and owners. Her complaint, however, was that first responders did not knock on Garner's door before extinguishing the fire.
“It was just striking that she and the dog were in there and they weren’t banging on people’s doors,” McCormick agreed.
According to the fire report, flames broke out sometime before 6 a.m. on New River Inlet Road when the electric wiring was overloaded in the apartment below Garner’s. Firefighters were dispatched at 6:01 a.m. and used about 750 gallons of water to bring the fire under control at 6:45 a.m.
Electrical failure or malfunction is believed to be the cause of the fire, according to the report.
Deputy Chief Bill Poe, North Topsail Beach Fire Department, said the firefighters were working with dispatch and were told Garner’s apartment - the unit above the source of the fire - was empty.
“The areas where we knew we had occupants were on the opposite side of the fire, so we sent police out to knock on doors and evacuate the other side while crews continued suppression of the fire,” Poe said.
The blaze began in living room outlet near a couch. The report stated the woman who lived there attempted to put it out with a fire extinguisher, but it spread to the couch covers and she fled.
Failed smoke alarms
While Garner did make it out of her apartment before flames damaged her unit, she said the outdoor smoke alarms failed. She woke up smelling something “hot and electrical” which she theorized might have been her oven. Once she found her oven was turned off and saw tell-tale smoke from her balcony she realized the building was on fire.
Acting quickly, she said she packed her purse with her cell phone, leashed her dog and began making an escape.
“For a moment I thought ‘If we just stay here someone will come in and get us, rescue us,’” Garner said.
She said she shouted down to firefighters on the scene, but she couldn’t see or breathe. She was told to crawl down the stairs to safety.
Following her lab mix, Jack, Garner reached the parking lot where she greeted neighbors, including McCormick. She and Jack were not injured, but they did receive help from the Red Cross to find a place to stay for the next few nights, she said.
Garner still lives in Topsail Reef, she said, but she's in a different unit now.
While structure fires can be devastating for those involved, especially residents who are displaced, Poe said following the proper steps in the case of a fire are important. The safest response to a house fire starts with a 9-1-1 call to get the fire department out there, Poe said.
If the fire is small and not immediately spreading, Poe said those with the training to use a fire extinguisher should attempt to put the fire out. But, he added, don't take unnecessary risks.
Steps in fire prevention can also be made on a daily basis with things as simple as supervising hot items on the stove. In the case a hot pan does catch fire, Poe advised putting the lid on and turning off the stove.
“All too often, people try to take the pan outside and are severely burned with grease,” Poe said.
In the case of the Topsail Reef fire, old electric had become overworked, which has several warning signs, he added. According to Poe, a common mistake people make in preventing electrical fires is ignoring the signs of an overloaded outlet, such as tripping breakers or a burning smell.
That smell, he explained, might be smoke from the wiring channeling through the walls, although you might not see it right away.
“Don’t try to second guess it, just call 9-1-1,” Poe said. “We’d rather come out there and find nothing … or assist you in a smaller problem before it becomes a larger problem for you.”
Reporter Kelsey Stiglitz can be reached at 910-219-8453 or kstiglitz@JDNews.com.