CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. - One of the deadliest fires in the history of Chesterfield County blazed through a home filled with four generations of one family, on Jan. 17. Two small children, their grandmother and great grandparents died while a young mother, daughter and granddaughter looked on helplessly.
"He was asleep right there in that crib," Katie Hunt, who escaped a fire that killed five members of her family, said.
A charred crib, blackened baby doll, and burnt belongings are what was left of Katie Hunt’s Chesterfield home on Wicklow Lane. Reminders of the lives, laughter, and love that filled the home just a few weeks ago. A fire that changed it all one January morning.
"I had just entered that deep sleep and I just remember her screaming," Hunt said.
Those screams Katie heard were coming from her mother.
"It was at that point where everything was starting to burn and the smoke was insane," Hunt said.
Katie jolted awake to a smoke-filled room and the sight of her mother holding her three children.
"My mom handed me Caroline and she had the other two and we just turned and came down the stairs and walked out the front door and I turned around and she was gone," Hunt said. "Caroline, I had a blanket wrapped around me and I had her face tucked in the blanket. She just looked at me and asked why our house was on fire and I lost it because I couldn’t find my mom and my other two."
Trapped inside the home, as the flames intensified, were Katie’s mom Marge, her three-year-old daughter Maddie and one-year-old son Colton. Also inside, Katie's paraplegic grandfather Dick and grandmother Margie. From across the street Katie looked on helplessly, when she was met by a police officer.
"I told him you have to be honest with me, don’t sugar coat it, I need to know where everybody is. He told me there are no survivors," Hunt said. "I threw up. I dropped to my knees and threw up and just broke down in the middle of the street it was awful. You watch the flames and you just think why what can I do there was nothing."
The days to follow were filled with despair, as Katie and her brother Ricky, who also escaped the fire, buried five of their loved ones.
"I don’t know why I’m still here and they’re not. I don’t know why she woke me up she could have walked out with all three of my kids," Hunt said. "My mom saved me. I feel guilty, I really do. It’s horrible, it’s horrible. I think that’s one of my biggest regrets because I was right there. I saw all three of them and I only took one because my mom had the other two. It just kills me everyday it really does."
On top of this insurmountable loss, Katie must now deal with the financial aftermath of the fire. She said she was in desperate need of legal and financial assistance. Everything was in her grandfather’s name and is now tied up in the estate.
"Our phones haven’t stopped ringing from insurance companies, bill collectors, the works. It’s just astronomical the amount of stuff you have to do after a tragedy," Hunt said. "There’s so many different things that have to be taken care of like insurance and estates. I could have never imagined doing this by myself."
In times of trouble, Katie said she could always turn to her mother, her best friend and her other half.
Katie said she believed her mother's advice right now would be to take care of her baby, Caroline. Katie called the five-year-old girl, her only surviving child, her motivation to keep going.
"She understands, we tell her that they are in heaven and they are looking down on her and that we’ll see them again. She asks when they can come play," Hunt said.
Hunt shared her memories of her children who did not survive. Little Maddie, she said, wanted to be just like mommy.
"She was my twin. Her horns held up her halo. She was hell on wheels she really was, but she had a sweet side too," Hunt said. "She would put on her boots and tell me she was coming to work and I was running late and I would brush her aside and say I gotta go. I’d take it all back for five minutes I really would."
And her little brother Colton, who lit up a room and just celebrated his first birthday.
"He just started to say momma and he would say 'hi momma,'my little boy," Hunt said. "He’d run and latch onto my leg and say 'momma.'"
The proudest chapter of her life, in a book full of memories.
"There’s so many memories in this house it hurts looking at it, it really does, but you can’t dwell on what happened, I have to keep going," Hunt said.
Although Katie would have re-written the ending of this story, she takes with her a page from her grandfather’s book of wisdom instilled in her under the roof they all shared.
"My grandpa had a saying: family first, family last, family always," Hunt said. "My grandparents needed us, we needed them, it was just mutual. We were all taking care of each other we were just one big family."
Katie’s advice — cherish the moments you have because in a second, life can change.
"That’s also one of my biggest regrets, working as much as I did. That time I can never get back and you could always make a dollar but you’re missing a lot. Just take your time with your kids," Hunt said.
Hunt also recommended doing regular checks of your smoke alarms and have an emergency plan. Ironically, her grandfather was in the disaster business and they had a plan, but she said in the chaos they didn’t stick to it.
Hunt wanted to thank the community for the outpouring of support and donations. That money helped pay for the funerals. The family is still in need of a probate attorney and a fund has been set up to help with the mounting expenses.
Beneficiary for Kaitlin Hunt
Citizens and Farmers Bank
1400 Alverser Dr.
Midlothian, VA 23113
Hunt also asked for continued prayers. A memorial service was held for the family in their hometown of Texas Thursday.
Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire that appears to be accidental. It started in the garage of the home.