Christmas tree ornaments say thanks after devastating Hopkinton fire

  • A home on Pine Street in Hopkinton was lost to fire on Dec. 4. Geoff Forester / Monitor file

  • The fire scene at 686 Pine Street in Contoocook on Wednesday morning, December 4, 2019. The fire started around 7 a.m. and four occupants and 2 animals made it out to safety. GEOFF FORESTER

  • A Hopkinton firefighter prepares to enter the house at 686 Pine Street in Hopkinton to bat down the remaining burning ambers on Wednesday morning, December 4, 2019. The fire started before 7 a.m. and the home was destroyed. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Two Hopkinton firefighters prepare to enter the house at 686 Pine Street in Hopkinton to bat down the remaining burning ambers on Wednesday morning, December 4, 2019. The fire started before 7 a.m. and the home was destroyed. GEOFF FORESTER

  • The fire scene at 686 Pine Street in Contoocook on Wednesday morning, December 4, 2019. The fire started around 7 a.m. and four occupants and 2 animals made it out to safety. GEOFF FORESTER

  • A Hopkinton firefighter douses the remaining hotspots at a early morning fire at 686 Pine Street in Contoocook on December 4, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/9/2019 4:33:33 PM

The ornaments for Kathy Miller’s Christmas tree will be made with more than just paper.

They’ll be made with a sense of appreciation, too, each showing the name of a person who’s chipped in to make Miller’s life a bit more manageable.

She needs that cushion of caring, after a two-alarm fire destroyed her home on Pine Street in Contoocook last week. The four people living with Miller got out fine, as did her two dogs, who are being cared for by the Concord SPCA. Miller’s pet snake was never found.

These days, Miller is living with her family at the Best Western hotel on Hall Street, compliments of the Red Cross. She noticed that Goodwill displays a Gratitude Tree. She’s got the tree inside her room, a six-footer, given to her by her late husband’s brother and his wife.

Miller hoped to start her idea, the one borrowed from Goodwill, the one using simple paper, on Monday, she said in a phone interview.

“We’ll hand-make them, my granddaughter and I and the rest of the people,” Miller said. “I’ll put them to work.”

Miller’s story is that of a woman whose work never seems done – caring for disabled or troubled loved ones, caring for the many dogs she’s owned, caring for herself after her husband, Donald, died in 2017 at the age of 75 from a diabetes-related illness.

She and Donald lived in that Pine Street home for over 30 years. They were married for 39 years. Miller worked making those giant wreaths that companies place on or above their front door.

She’s on disability after back surgery and bouts of depression. Heartache intensified two years ago, after Donald died, his ashes placed in an urn alongside Miller’s bed. He had been confined to a wheelchair. Miller pushed him around the house.

Since then, “A lot more happened that I’ll go through with you,” she said.

She lost her mother last year, her stepfather shortly before Christmas, with a few family pets dying as well during this period of time.

Meanwhile, she was living with people who needed her help. An autistic granddaughter. Her brother, who had been homeless on the streets of Manchester before moving in with Miller 1½ years ago. Another man, a mentally challenged family friend, who needed a home and was invited into Miller’s 19 years ago.

Now, this.

“I’m trying to stay positive,” Miller said. “The first night here at the hotel, I had flashbacks and did not do good and I broke down and it was overwhelming. It’s still overwhelming.”

The fire, its cause unknown, began in the early-morning chill of Dec. 4. Miller was awake at about 6:30 a.m., while the man whom she had been caring for and her autistic daughter were sleeping.

Miller heard strange sounds, crackling or something similar, nothing she was used to. She saw smoke pouring from the adjacent garage, an apartment for her other daughter, the one who wasn’t home at the time. Her brother called 911. Miller went to investigate.

“I went up to the bedroom door to see if this was a small fire, to see what it was,” Miller said. “I got hit with black smoke in my face. It was so quick.”

She ran back over to the main house and screamed for her daughter to wake up, get dressed, run for her life. She yelled to the “adopted” man, telling him to do the same.

Miller herself ran from her bedroom, but not before her purse handle got snagged on a chair, spilling her wallet containing $500 in cash onto the floor, money that went up in smoke.

The four of five housemates gathered out front, on the street, shortly before 7 a.m.

“Yes, it was cold,” Miller confirmed.

The house was a total loss, Hopkinton fire Chief Jeff Yale said in a phone interview, adding that the cause will probably never be known. Miller told firefighters to look for the urn holding her husband’s ashes. They found it, damaged, with the ashes intact but needing a new resting place.

“I was relieved they found it,” Miller said. “I told them his ashes were near the bed and they put the urn in a handbag and tied it up. It needs to be replaced, but the ashes are fine.”

Added Yale, “It was right there by the window. The wall was gone and we were able to reach it and grab it.”

Miller and her group arrived at the Best Western last week, and the tree, the six footer, the one given to Miller by another one of her brothers and his wife, was delivered shortly thereafter.

Money from the Red Cross is running out, Miller said, so she’ll need to start looking for a cheaper hotel room soon. An online fundraising page had collected half of a $15,000 goal by Monday.

“It’s been overwhelming, how kind and generous people are to people who need their help,” Miller said.

To give back, those ornaments, the ones to be made from paper and gratitude, will feature names of people, those who brought car-loads of clothing and other supplies, and those who have contributed money on-line.

Goodwill has one, and to Miller, that seemed like a good idea.


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