Family's home destroyed by fire days after derecho storm knocked out power

·4 min read
Some members of the Riggins family are pictured next to the home destroyed in a fire on May 24, three days after the May 21 storm. Liz Riggins, second from right, says she's grateful everyone's safe. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
Some members of the Riggins family are pictured next to the home destroyed in a fire on May 24, three days after the May 21 storm. Liz Riggins, second from right, says she's grateful everyone's safe. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

Like tens of thousands of others, the Riggins family home lost power from the derecho storm. A few days later, the family, including two parents and four children, lost their home to fire.

Liz RIggins calls it a "very tough, surreal two weeks" as the family copes with the sudden, devastating loss that can all be tied back to last month's storm that tore through the Ottawa region.

"But the family is together and that is what counts for us," Riggins said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Tuesday.

Riggins, her husband and four children were among the Hydro Ottawa customers who lost power during the powerful windstorm on May 21. They were fortunate, though, because they had a generator.

It's the scariest moment of my life. - Liz Riggins

They wanted to share that fortune, too, by inviting her brother-in-law's family to stay with them. That meant there were 10 people living in the home "enjoying the minute amount of power that we could have," Riggins said.

The two families shared the home for a few days as they waited for power to return. Then on the night of May 23, a Monday, Riggins recalled they turned off the generator and she said the candles were all blown out.

"But unbeknownst to us, that wasn't the case," she said.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

'Extremely close call'

Her husband woke up for work around 5 a.m. the next morning and heard "what sounded like pots and pans banging downstairs." Riggins said she also woke up to the sound, and looked outside at the garage.

"[I] saw just a wall of fire," she described. "It's the scariest moment of my life. I'm used to fire ... but this was unlike anything I've ever seen."

Riggins realized a fire extinguisher would do nothing to calm the flames, so she screamed to alert the others the house was on fire.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Once outside, the 911 dispatcher told Riggins to do a head-count. They realized her niece was nowhere to be found. Her brother-in-law and a neighbour ran back inside and grabbed her.

"By that point, the house was engulfed in smoke," she said. "Luckily, she was lying on the ground [on a blow-up mattress], so she didn't have any smoke inhalation."

"We all made it out alive and safe and we're taking things day by day," she said. "That was an extremely, extremely close call."

WATCH | Family describes harrowing morning when fire engulfed home:

Destroyed home but grateful

Riggins said her family is lucky to have made it out without any injuries. She says they're trying to stay positive.

"My husband and I have a philosophy that as long as our family is together and safe, everything else is just window dressing," she said. "It's a home. It's a building that can be replaced."

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

The Riggins family is now living out of a hotel and preparing to move into a rental. With them, they bring the clothes on their backs and a few sentimental items, like her daughter's blanket that was knit by her grandmother and a statue from a trip to Africa.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Fire investigators have not yet confirmed the cause of the fire, but Riggins has her suspicions.

She believes the jerry cans of gasoline, which were in the garage and being used to fuel the generator, had caps that weren't completely tightened. Though the candles were no longer lit, she thinks gas fumes caused the candle to spark while they slept.

In the aftermath, Riggins wonders what the family could have done differently. She said one of the fire marshals told them a smoke detector in the garage could have potentially alerted the family earlier to the fire.

"That's where we keep a lot of flammable items," she said.

Community fundraiser for family

Standing outside their old home Tuesday, Riggins' daughter Cassy described the harrowing morning, while clinging to her stuffed bear.

"The first thing on my mind when I heard my mom say that the house is on fire, is grab Bear-Bear and run out of the house," the eight-year-old said. "I was shaking like crazy ... like a volcano erupting."

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

The community has rallied around the family of six by starting a fundraiser, which "brought tears to our eyes," Liz Riggins said.

"Knowing that everybody's there for us, it was a great, great relief," she said.

"I cannot express how grateful I am for our community and our family and our friends for coming together and helping us out in this time of need."

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