HOLIDAY — Two weeks ago a fire took everything — their home, their beloved dog Rascal, all their earthly possessions, even the Christmas tree and the wrapped gifts underneath.
And just as quickly, strangers swooped in to help Amanda Short, her fiance, T.J. Cater, and their 2-year-old son, Tanner, get back on their feet.
People gave clothes. Toys. Gift cards to Walmart and Publix and Toys R Us.
A man donated his 30-foot camper. Another man let the family take whatever they needed from his mother's estate sale.
Employees at one local company decided not to do the usual holiday gift exchange at the office, and instead pooled their money and sent $500 to Short and Cater. Another firm has offered to make the down payment as soon as the family finds a place to live.
"It's amazing. I don't even know how to explain it," said Short, 24, an X-ray technician who is still spending her evenings going through boxes of donated goods. "I never knew there were so many good people in this world.
"It's sad that you have to have a tragedy to realize that there's so many amazing people."
The Dec. 9 fire at the couple's Holiday mobile home was a freak accident. Cater, 28, was heating some vegetable oil on the stove that morning so he could make some french fries. But when he threw the frozen fries into the hot oil, the ice crystals quickly became steam — turning the boiling oil into a fireball.
Fiery oil droplets sprayed the cabinets, and soon the whole home was ablaze. Cater ran outside for help. His dog didn't make it.
Short rushed home from work to find nothing but charred rubble. Their family Christmas — meticulously planned, wrapped and paid for — had gone up in smoke.
As news of their plight spread, though, the family received a bounty of donations. Chuck E. Cheese's gave Tanner a free birthday party. Toy trucks and balls and stuffed animals piled up. And this morning for Christmas, among other things, Tanner will get a new mini-sofa with Toy Story characters, to replace the Cars couch he lost to the fire.
The family has been staying with relatives in Seminole, but are eager to get under their own roof again. They want something affordable, perhaps another mobile home they could pay off in a few years. They both work. They can make monthly payments. But the dings on their credit make bank financing unlikely. They're hoping for a place with owner financing.
They've already received more than they could have hoped for, from people they'd never met.
"We've had so many people helping us with everything," Short marveled.
The Christmas they almost lost has become the Christmas they'll never forget.