By Diane Smith | Staff writer
The O'Neill family doesn't like to focus too much on the fire that took so much from them three days before Christmas.
Shae and Emily O'Neill of Ravenna lost three dogs in the home, all their belongings, Christmas gifts for their 2-year-old daughter, Jane, and even keys to a family car.
But the couple would rather focus on what they have, and the generosity of the Ravenna community since the Dec. 22 fire.
"There have been so many people who helped us," Shae O'Neill said as he struggled to name them all. "It's just been crazy."
The couple spent the night of Dec. 22 at Ray's Place in Kent, visiting family from out of town. Shae's parents, Dan and Lisa O'Neill, were babysitting Jane, who was spending the night with her grandparents. Dogs Zoey, a Jack Russell terrier; Milo, a blue tick, beagle and basset hound mix, and Lady, a mix of whippet, German shepherd, greyhound and black lab, all were inside the family home.
Around midnight, the couple arrived at their South Diamond Street home to find it on fire. A passerby had reported the fire, and the couple arrived about four minutes before the firefighters.
"I was the first one in the house," an emotional Shae O'Neill said. "I knew exactly where all three of my dogs were."
Calling for his dogs, he carefully ventured through the house, touching doorknobs before opening them to see if they were hot and standing back when opening them in case smoke or flames rushed out.
As he headed up the steps, he noticed the roof caving in over part of the house. The smoke blinded him as he headed up the steps, and as he headed back down, he noticed a living room wall going up in flames.
"After I called for them three times, I knew they were dead and there was nothing I could do about it," he said sadly.
But after seeing flames shoot out from the front bedroom -- the one Jane slept in -- the family knew the results would have been much more tragic had they been home sleeping that night.
Later, they learned that the primary fires seemed to have taken place in a bathroom and the living room. While the cause has not officially been determined, the cause is believed to have been electrical.
The house has since been demolished.
The couple was renting the house. Their belongings were not covered by insurance.
Within hours of the blaze, the community sprang into action. Every Christmas gift that had been purchased for Jane was immediately replaced by close friends and family members. The friends and family continued to check in with the family, but pretty soon, so did the rest of the community.
Their bank, Portage Community Bank, responding to questions from customers, decided to accept donations for the family, keeping track of the names of the donors so the family could thank them.
Hundreds of people contributed from througout Norhteast Ohio. The family didn't recognize many of the names. The account remains open for donations.
The family moved in with Shae's parents until warmer weather allows them to find a new home, and the community quickly found them.
David Delphia of D&C Renovations, who was called to shut off gas to the home the night of the blaze, pulled Dan O'Neill aside at the scene and said, "I've got you covered." Two days later, he arrived at the home with three vans full of items donated to the family, including furniture, clothing and toys.
Stace Schumann and Molly Howington of Schumann's Roadside and Towing agreed to tow Emily O'Neill's car to Classic Honda in Streetsboro, which provided her new keys for her car free of charge. The car keys were lost in the blaze.
Joe Sidoti and Jeff and Laura Owen organized a softball tournament and urged the teams to donate. The man who won the 50/50 drawing decided to donate his $240 in winnings back to the family. The Ravenna Elks Club also did a lot for the family.
Portage Self Storage offered the couple a unit to store donations. The family is still going through them.
Guido's of Ravenna also helped the family, as did many of Dan O'Neill's coworkers at Schneller Inc.; Emily O'Neill's co-workers at Northcoast Medical Training Academy; and Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna, where Lisa and Shae O'Neill both work.
In the spirit of "paying it forward" the family donated 20 bags of clothing to the Portage County Clothing Center. When memories of the fire keep the family up late, they write thank-you notes. Emily O'Neill estimates she's written more than 100 notes by hand so far.
Shae O'Neill returned to the house after it was demolished to survey the damage. Shae took some dirt from the house to bury in memory of the three dogs. "It's closure for me," he said.
The family went to the Portage Animal Protective League and became the owners of a 9-week-old puppy, "Winter," a pug-terrier mix.
"The thing about Winter is that she's like all three of our dogs in one," Emily O'Neill said. "She has some qualities that each dog had."
Shae O'Neill said he'll never forget the trauma of that night, the smell of the fire, or what it was like to go up the steps that night. But the family will never forget the generosity of the community.
"In times like these, you know that your family and good friends will be there for you, but when people you don't even know step up, that what surprises you," Lisa O'Neill said. "It's a good thing that Jane is so young that she won't remember this, but we won't let her forget until the day we die how generous people are."
Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org