AUGUSTA — Robin Bailey heard something scurrying around.
She was looking at the charred remains of the 55 Sewall St. apartment she and her 8-year-old daughter, Sami, called home, a day after a fire left 14 tenants of the building homeless.
The noise was Chubbs, Sami’s pet rabbit, hopping around in his cage, which was surrounded by charred floor.
Bailey said she had asked firefighters about the rabbit the night of the Jan. 10 blaze at the six-unit building and they reported the rabbit wasn’t moving, and probably was dead. Since her apartment sustained heavy damage from the fire — which authorities said was caused by improper disposal of smoking materials — the last thing Bailey expected to find the day after the fire was a hopping bunny.
“He scared the crap out of me,” Bailey said. “Apparently a piece of Sheetrock fell from the ceiling onto his cage, and it had blocked him from the flames.”
Chubbs was given a bath and a new name — Smokey. The family is staying at Bailey’s parents’ house in Augusta.
The rabbit was one of a handful of sentimental things that Bailey and Sami, a Lincoln Elementary School student, were able to salvage from the fire, including Sami’s baby keepsake box, her stuffed baby jaguar, Bailey’s Air Force medals and a family Bible.
Just about everything else in their third-floor apartment, from clothing to beds, was destroyed.
“We lost everything other than about five sentimental things — clothes, bedding, everything,” Bailey said Tuesday. “It’s a starting-over process, starting from square one. We’re looking for apartments close to Lincoln School so I don’t have to disrupt Sami’s schooling.”
The apartment is close enough, and the fire was big enough, for Sami to see the fire from her Lincoln classroom last week.
‘Still good in the world’
The Lincoln Elementary School community is close enough to have responded with donations to help the burned-out families recover.
Lincoln has three students, from three different families, who lost their homes in the fire — two kindergartners and a third-grader, according to Rick Ray, a school guidance counselor who is collecting money to give to the three families to help them recover.
Ray said the donations starting coming in Friday, the day after the fire, even before anyone at the school actively started seeking assistance for the families.
“By 3 o’clock Friday, unsolicited, people had already brought in more than $850,” Ray said. “One grandfather asked how many families were impacted. We said three, and he handed us three $100 bills. So it’s nice to see there is still good in the world. People still, despite what we all hear, like to help others.”
The donations included three $5 gift cards to Barnes and Noble contributed by a second-grader from her own money, because the girl was concerned the families had lost all their books, Ray said. A mother of a Lincoln student also went around to many area businesses, asking them to donate gift cards for the families.
As of Tuesday, Ray said $1,317 in cash, $495 worth of gift cards, and toys and clothes had been collected at Lincoln School.
“It’s completely overwhelming, how much people are helping. I didn’t expect anything like that,” said Jessy Carr, who lived on a first-floor apartment at 55 Sewall St. with her boyfriend, Paul Couture, and children Owen, a 6-year-old who attends Lincoln, and 4-year-old Cody, who attends pre-kindergarten at Gilbert Elementary School.
“The community has been incredible in this whole thing, helping us out, which makes it a lot easier,” she said.
Carr said they were able to salvage most of the children’s toys from the fire, but most of the rest of their possessions couldn’t be saved.
She said Couture and she recently had discussed getting renters’ insurance, but didn’t do it.
Fanning the flames
Tim Perkins lived in the second-floor apartment with his fiancee, Jonna Child, and her 6-year-old son, Jordan Goggan, and 6-month-old girl, Georgia. The apartment has a porch where authorities believe the fire started.
Perkins and Child were able to salvage some irreplaceable items from their apartment, including his mother’s ashes and a baby book, but lost nearly everything else.
While Jordan is staying with his father, Perkins, Child and Georgia were first put up by the American Red Cross at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Augusta, and now are staying at Motel 6, with assistance from the city’s general assistance office. They hope to have a new apartment within a week.
Sgt. Ken Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said the fire’s cause has been determined to be accidental, “most probably careless disposal of smoking materials, fanned by the wind,” on the second-floor porch on the building’s north side.
Grimes said it appears an occupant of that apartment had been smoking an hour or two before the fire, and the cigarette ignited the porch after being fanned by the wind.
Grimes said no charges are expected.
Perkins said he works nights and was asleep at the time of the fire, and he woke up to crackling noises to discover the wall by his bed was on fire.
Perkins said he may have smoked a cigarette on the porch but it would have been around 6 a.m., before he went to bed, and several hours before the fire was reported around noon. He speculated that a cigarette could have been left by someone using the stairs by the porch to visit someone in another apartment.
“I was sleeping when it happened,” Perkins said. “I do feel guilty, because it was my porch, but it was not my cigarette. I sure wouldn’t burn my own apartment.”
Building owner Laurier Brunelle, who lives elsewhere in Augusta, said the building is insured and he plans to meet with his insurance company and city officials to find out if the building is a total loss or can be rebuilt. He hopes to rebuild it.
Brunelle said he’s heard most of his former tenants are finding new places to live.
“I hope they do find nice places, because I had some good tenants there,” Brunelle said.
The building, which is on a 0.16-ace parcel, is assessed at $216,600 by the city.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647