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Family leans on each other after losing home in fire

POSTED: August 25, 2014 12:58 a.m.
JENNIFER JACOB BROWN/The Times

From left, Nathis Touchet, Alyssa Rhodes-Touchet, 12, Tristan Chance Rhodes, 16, and Jessica Rhodes-Touchet stand together at the remains of their Lula home.

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After a long series of tragedies and accidents, Jessica Rhodes-Touchet said she doesn’t know which way to turn, but she does know whom she can lean on.

Thursday night, Rhodes-Touchet’s Lula home was lost in a fire. Sunday, she stood next to what little remained of the home — mostly shaky beams and warm, pungent ash — and gestured toward her family. “Those guys, they’re what keeps me going,” she said.

The fire, which caused no injuries but destroyed the home and everything inside, was just the latest bad news for Rhodes-Touchet, her husband Nathis Touchet, and her children Alyssa Rhodes-Touchet, 12, and Tristan Chance Rhodes, 16.

Rhodes-Touchet lost her grandfather and adoptive father, LeRoy Maness, less than a month ago to an infection, and the family depleted its savings to cover the funeral costs.

They had been living with Jessica Rhodes-Touchet’s grandmother and adoptive mother, Berdelle Maness, to serve as caretakers while Maness fights cancer, but they still kept most of their possessions at their nearby mobile home, which they visited daily.

Rhodes-Touchet, who was disabled after a 1998 car wreck and later survived a ruptured stomach, said she is unable to work and her husband lost his job after taking time off to deal with the loss of their home.

“I keep thinking I’ll pull up (in the driveway) and our house will still be here,” she said. “I know everybody says God won’t give you more than you can stand. I should be able to lift a Buick by now.”

Along with all their furnishings, their electronics and most of their clothing and school supplies, the family lost many mementos of LeRoy Maness, who was an Air Force veteran.

LeRoy Maness carved furniture by hand, and the fire took several of those pieces, including Rhodes-Touchet’s childhood cradle.

They also lost temple rubbings that LeRoy Maness had brought home from an Air Force assignment in Okinawa, their collection of autographed memorabilia, years worth of photo albums and a record collection that had belonged to another late family member.

“She had every Beatles album on vinyl,” Rhodes-Touchet said. “All of the Jethro Tull. Some of (the other records) were autographed.”

They even lost the concert tickets that had been hidden in the house to surprise the kids with later.

“We’re thankful that we weren’t here and that our (pets) were with us,” Rhodes-Touchet said, “but everything, our beds were here. Everything since (the kids) were born was here.”

The house itself was another memory of LeRoy Maness, who had helped Rhodes-Touchet purchase it when she was just 17. She had just finished paying it off.

“It was finally mine,” she said. “I still don’t even know what state of grief I’m in losing my grandfather.”

Even with everything that’s happened, Rhodes-Touchet still finds time to think of others, and said she worried about the safety of the firefighters throughout the blaze.

“All I could see was our house in flames,” she said. “Thank God none of them were hurt.”

She was also eager to express her thanks to the people who have helped them, especially Tristan’s football coach at East Hall High School, Bryan Gray.

“If it wasn’t for Coach Gray who sat and prayed with us and offered us advice,” she said. “Through so many trials and tribulations, he’s been there with us.”

Tristan plays football and wrestles for East Hall, while Alyssa is an award-winning cheerleader at East Hall Middle School. Their awards and trophies were among the items lost in the fire.

Rhodes-Touchet said Tristan offered to give up his extracurricular activities and get a job to help support the family, but she told him not to.

“It just wouldn’t be right,” she said.

The cause of the fire is still a mystery.

Rhodes-Touchet said it began with an explosion, and the home was a total loss within three minutes. What’s left resembles the remains of a bomb site.

“Our neighbors said it shook their house,” she said. “They said they could feel heat on their windows.”

Rhodes-Touchet said the power had been temporarily cut off at the house, and that it was not hooked up to gas or any other power sources, save for a wood-burning fireplace.

There was a thunderstorm in the area Thursday evening, but Rhodes-Touchet points to what’s left of the home — a charred front wall with an empty doorway, a floor covered in black ash, a ceramic vase resting on a pile of ruined clothes — and says, “Can you imagine lightning doing that?”

Only one artifact is still in one piece — a framed illustration of a ghost, bought at a yard sale 25 years ago by an aunt.

“It’s funny,” she said. “That’s the only thing.”

Sunday, Rhodes-Touchet looked at the pages, burned around the edges, of the family Bible scattered around the ruins of her home.

“They’re scattered, but they’re not completely ruined,” she said. “I guess that’s a message that in the heart of the matter, there’s still hope.”



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