HOLIDAY — This was the first year she had it all together, the tree, the gifts, all wrapped and ready, weeks before Christmas, and now it's all gone, every last bit of it, nothing left, not even her dog, Rascal, who is now buried in the back yard. The firefighters buried him for her. Amanda Short can't think about it because she feels like she's going to be sick. But she can't stop thinking about it, not even in her dreams, which are nightmares. Her fiance, T.J. Cater, wakes her in the motel room when she shakes and moans and says he's sorry.
Short, 24, left for work on Thursday morning, as always. She is an X-ray technician. Cater, 28, who works on trees, was at home. Their toddler, Tanner, who turns 2 on Wednesday, was at Cater's grandmother's house.
It was about 10:30 a.m.
Cater wanted fries.
He got out a pan and filled it with vegetable oil and cranked it up on high. When he put the frozen fries in the pan, the oil exploded — which is what happens when water hits very hot oil, said Abbie Bennewitz, a fire investigator for Pasco County Fire Rescue. She examined what was left of the home Thursday and ruled the fire an accident. She saw the charred tree and presents.
When the oil erupted, it sprayed on the cabinets, catching them on fire and then the walls were burning and soon the whole place was in flames. Cater's face was red with first degree burns. He said it happened in seconds.
Short couldn't understand her fiance when he called. He was hysterical, garbled. Finally, she could make out these words:
"The house is gone," Cater said.
"What about Rascal?" Short said.
"Everything's gone," Cater said.
A coworker drove Short to the single-wide mobile home on Kepner Drive in Buena Vista. The couple had lived here for three years. They were two years away from having the mobile home paid off. They didn't have insurance on it. There wasn't anything to be saved. Thank God, Short said, that her son had his favorite blankie with him. It's light green. Attempts to replace it with new blankets have resulted in failure. So they survived — Short, Cater, their son. Blankie survived. And that's it. That's all that's left.
The house was spotless, which is saying something for a 470-square foot trailer with two adults, one toddler and a dog living there. But this was the first year Tanner was old enough to appreciate Christmas. And Short wanted it to be wonderful. She started early, combing for discounts and deals. Money is scarce but Short still made sure everyone she loved would have a gift:
A purse for her mother. A down comforter for her dad. Pajamas for her five sisters and brother. Digital camera for her grandmother. Hunting gear for Cater, warm camouflage clothes and stuff for his bows and arrows. She hit Black Friday hard — her first time heading out Thanksgiving night to huddle in line. For Tanner, all things SpongeBob SquarePants, even the wrapping paper. Matchbox cars. A robotic kitty that meows. An outdoor play set that looks like a ship.
He was going to love it. She thought about his little face lighting up on Christmas morning. She saw it so clearly. She was going to wake him up early and cover his head with a blanket and then whip it off when they got to the living room to make it more dramatic; ta daaah, look what Santa brought for you, Merry Christmas.
"I had everything perfect," Short said Friday afternoon, wearing the same jeans and socks and sneakers she wore when she got up for work the day before. She misses Rascal. She has $12 in her bank account. She doesn't know what to do.