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Beauty From The Ashes: Even after losing nearly everything in a house fire, the Markle family counts their blessings

by on December 05, 2018 3:44 PM

“Unless it’s fatal, it’s no big deal.”

That’s the saying on the ceramic plaque that hangs on the burned-out front door of the Gatesburg home of Derec and Maggie Markle. It serves as a reminder to the Markles and their five children that they have much to be grateful for as they start to pick up the pieces following a devastating house fire.

Even as the couple recounts the awful event and its aftermath, their focus is on the positive: the kindness of friends, neighbors, and strangers alike; the love of family; the professionalism of the companies who are helping them to rebuild; and the many ways things could have been worse.

Junior high sweethearts who started dating as students at Park Forest Middle School, the Markles were returning on October 15 from a trip to Colorado, where they celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary. Anxious to get back home to their children – Kada, 14; twins Eva and Macy, 12; Tiaden, 11; and Ellie, 8 – they turned on their cell phones when their plane landed at their connection in Chicago, only to discover a plethora of frantic texts and phone messages imploring them to call home right away.

They soon learned that their home, an old farmhouse on West Gatesburg Road, had caught fire while the kids had been at school that day. Fire investigators later determined that the fire was most likely caused by a lithium ion battery in a headlamp stored on a utility closet shelf in the mudroom.

Once assured that their children, who had been in Derec’s father’s care during their absence, were safe, the shell-shocked couple faced an anxious wait in the Chicago airport for their delayed flight to State College.

“I just couldn’t wait to get home and hug my babies,” Maggie says. “The kindnesses really started there in the airport, when a random stranger saw me crying and hugged me and gave me a new pack of tissues.”

Strangers continued to offer kind gestures, giving up portals at the airport charging stations for Maggie and Derec to charge their phones, and changing seats so the couple could sit together on their flight home. When they finally arrived home that night, they learned the details of the day’s unfortunate events.

“Our youngest two got off the school bus and started walking up the hill toward our house and saw smoke billowing out of the rafters. … My son instructed his sister to stay where she was while he ran to the neighbor’s house to get help,” Maggie says. “Our neighbor, Bob [Guenot] immediately called 911 and he and Uncle Eddie [Guenot] ran up to our house, kicked in a window, and started fighting our fire using a garden hose.”

Eventually, firefighters from Alpha Fire Company, Port Matilda, and Warriors Mark arrived and extinguished the fire. Two rooms were completely gutted and more than 80 percent of the contents of the home were considered a total loss because of soot and smoke damage.

“The physical damage to the actual structure of the house was relatively minor. It’s the filth and the smoke that ruined everything. It ruined the carpets, it ruined the ceilings, it ruined the walls. You’ve smelled a campfire; it’s not like that. A house fire is like a chemical fire. The smell doesn’t come out of anything,” Derec explains. “It is literally bonded to the items. It doesn’t dissipate. Those are total losses.”

Even so, the damage could have been even worse had it not been for the quick actions of the Guenots.

“When I think about their courageousness,” Derec says as his eyes well up with emotion, “I mean, I don’t know if I would run toward a burning house. But Bob and Ed smashed out the window and they did their best, and the fire department acknowledged that had they not acted, by the time they got there the house would have started falling down.”

Once the fire was out and the property was safe to re-enter, Maggie says, “There was an amazing fireman who took Kada and Macy upstairs, saying, ‘Gather what’s really important to you and whatever is going to help you over the next couple of days.’ That was really calming for them. I haven’t found exactly who he is yet, but it’s on my bucket list.”

Family members took the Markles in overnight while their insurance company worked to find them a suitable rental house. During this time, they were overwhelmed by generous offers from friends and neighbors.

“That was truly the most touching thing,” Derec says. “In the day or so after, at least five or six people offered their homes to us.”

“Neighbors saying, ‘My house is your house, my things are yours, if there’s anything you need,’” Maggie continues. “I felt like we had a halo of love around us.”

The Markles even express gratitude for Erie Insurance and the company’s help in coordinating the rebuilding and recovery effort.

“They’ve been very responsive, very straightforward. … They immediately helped us find hotel lodging, gave us spending money, and our new domicile was wrapped up and signed within six days of the disturbance,” Derec says. “They furnished the house, so we walked into a rental house that was completely livable. All of our immediate needs were met.”

Still, it was difficult for the family to come to terms with the hard facts that almost everything they owned was not salvageable.

“It’s like that adage that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” Derec says. “Everything you own is now contaminated or burned up – all the little things you take for granted. Mouthwash. AA batteries. Dental floss. A pair of scissors. Every single thing.”

So the Markles were touched by many more acts of generosity: Neighbors and friends who brought them daily essentials like hair brushes and toothpaste and hangers and office supplies. Acquaintances who made meals. Teachers from Ferguson Township Elementary School who collected bins full of games and toys for the children. Clients – Derec is the owner of Yonder Mountain Conservation Company – who offered clothing and donations. Old friends who reached out with thoughtful text messages. Eva’s young friend from cheerleading who baked them cookies. The anonymous donor who tucked an envelope containing $200 into their burned-out front door.

“The giving has been phenomenal,” Maggie says. “There’s just so much beauty in this tragedy; so much giving that makes us want to pay it forward."

The Markle family is much more accustomed to being on the giving end of kindness. In what he describes as a poetic twist of irony, Derec says the Markle kids participated in Children’s Day at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts one year, selling bracelets and earring holders. They donated their proceeds – about $500 – to a family in the Lewistown area who had lost their home in a fire.

Each November, the family hosts a party they call “Chimi Night,” where they serve chicken chimichangas and request a donation to the State College Food Bank from all of their guests.

“One year we got about 800 pounds of donations,” Maggie says. “And that’s so good to teach our kids. I take them with me to deliver everything on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving so they can see how us throwing a party – sure, that was fun, and you had your friends over, and glow sticks – but this is why we do it.”

Chimi Night was put on hold this year, but the Markles are already planning to bring it back next November, when they’re back in their newly rebuilt farmhouse.

“We’ll give back in a way that relates. I’m not sure what yet, but doing something for either fire companies or fire victims will be what we ask people to do,” Maggie says.

In another ironic twist, the Markles have always been fanatical about fire safety. There were smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers in almost every room of the house; they stored a fire ladder under their bed; and they used to hold family fire drills when their children were small.

“We had a fire plan in place, but we thank God no one was home and no one was hurt, and that our kids did the right thing by getting help and not attempting to enter the house,” Maggie says. “We’re so proud of our kids.”

It is clear that their family is a source of strength for the Markles.

“We usually say a prayer before we go away, and before we left for our anniversary trip to Colorado – I don’t know what kind of intuition Derec had, but he wanted to do this – we all interlocked our hands and took a picture, and we labeled it, ‘Markle Strong,’” Maggie says.

Derec adds, “This really sucks for us, but I bet there’s a lot of other people who don’t have a tenth of the community, or the insurance, or a large family. The kids all went over to the house yesterday and spent a few hours cleaning up a lot of the debris from outside the house and throwing it into a dumpster. Seven of us can get a lot done, maybe more than what a family of three could do.”

The Markles believe that others can learn from their experience.

“Failure to plan is planning to fail,” Derec says. “Have a conversation with your insurer to make sure you’re fully covered. Know your neighbors. Talk with your kids, have fire safety talks. And don’t buy lithium ion batteries.”

As the family works to rebuild their home and regain a sense of normalcy, Maggie says, “Our main focus now is on our gratefulness. The support and the lifting of our hearts we’ve been given from those around us – it’s been a beautiful, humbling experience in that way. … There’s goodness everywhere.”


Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.


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