Unseasonably warm, that’s the proper description for Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007, but Josh Barrett proudly wore his Flowery Branch letterman jacket.
The junior shooting guard and his Falcons’ teammates left school that afternoon and went to their coach’s house for a Christmas party. Flowery Branch basketball coach Todd Cottrell’s wife, Angie, had made enough lasagna to fill the bottomless pits that are teenage boys’ stomachs.
The mood of the party was jovial for more that one reason, the next night, Dec. 19, the Falcons were playing a game at Philips Arena and in three days, school was letting out for the holidays.
Following the party, Barrett hitched a ride with teammate Phillip Chau. The two were going to Barrett’s house to watch a movie and sleep some before studying for exams.
At the urging of Barrett’s mother the boys reluctantly changed their plans and as a result, their lives were saved.
It also turned out that Barrett’s morning-time decision to wear his letterman jacket on that unseasonably warm day wasn’t so odd after all.
A mother’s rules
Barrett’s mother, Annette Baugh, got home from work around 7 that night.
She unloaded her car, took everything inside and got ready to head to the Mall of Georgia to do some Christmas shopping.
Her stepson, Nathan Baugh, was at work in Buford, and her youngest, 15-year-old Zach, was at basketball practice with the Flowery Branch junior varsity.
"I left the house somewhere between 7:10 and 7:15 p.m. and as I was backing out of the driveway Joshua called," she said. "He and Phil (Chau) wanted to go to the house."
But Baugh had other plans, and insisted that Josh accompany her on her trip to the mall.
Barrett and Chau were at the Chevron, right up the road from the family’s house, getting gas. Baugh told her son to stay there and that she would come get him.
"He told me, ‘Mama, I don’t want to go, I’m tired. We’re just going to lie around, watch a movie and take a nap’" Baugh said. "I told him no. He hung up on me."
Baugh laughed when she thought of how quickly her son retracted his angry hang-up and called her back to say, "Phil and I are going to follow you down there."
The second house on the street
It took the family 20 minutes to get from the gas station to the mall. On their way, Baugh called Flowery Branch junior varsity coach Robert Alfonso Jr. to ask if he would mind bringing Zach to the mall after practice.
"At about 9 p.m. coach (Alfonso) called and said that he was at the mall with Zach," Baugh said. "I was just coming down the escalators at the main entrance so I told him I would meet him there."
Meanwhile, Barrett, Chau and another brother in the Barrett clan, 19-year-old Taylor, were finishing up their mall rounds when Taylor’s phone rang.
It was Michael Rose, a family friend.
"When Danny (Baugh, Josh’s stepfather) and I got off the escalator, Taylor, Phil and Josh come running and Josh is yelling, ‘Mama we’ve got to go, our house is burning,’" Baugh said.
The call from Rose had been to ask if the Barrett’s lived in the first or second house on Turk Road, because the second one was burning rapidly.
"We immediately we took off running through the mall," Barrett said.
"The security guards were chasing us."
Into the inferno
A neighbor went by the house at 8 p.m. and it was fine.
The first call to 911 dispatch came in at approximately 8:20 p.m.
When the first of what would be five emergency respondents got to 4969 Turk Road between 8:26 and 8:30 p.m., the house was already 80 to 90 percent engulfed in flames.
"We started to come down the road and all we could see were fire trucks and everything," Barrett said. "We couldn’t even get on the road there were so many fire trucks.
"I told (Chau) to stop the car and I got out and took off down the street, and when I got there I saw the house burning. I tried to run up to the house and one of the fire fighters stopped me"
The truth of it is that Barrett was so determined to get into his house that a fireman had to almost tackle him. Fueling his determination was the fact that his 10-month old Labradoodle puppy, Emma, and the family’s three cats were inside the blaze.
"Joshua kept yelling, ‘Did you get my dog?’" Baugh said.
"There was fire everywhere, we couldn’t see the house," Barrett said, "Nothing was left, just the front porch and the fireplace."
By the time the family arrived at what had been their six-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath house, everything was gone, including a rocking chair that had been in the family for 42 years, quilts hand-sewn by Baugh’s grandmother and Baugh’s father’s mandolin, a gift given to her right before he died nine years ago.
"I lost all of the boys’ awards, report cards," she said. "I’ll tell you what really gets me is that I lost my home videos.
"We just had to stand there and watch while everything we owned was lost."
Band of brothers
"I got a call from coach Alfonso that he saw the boys running through the mall and people chasing them like they had stolen something," coach Cottrell said with a laugh. "Josh called me 10 minutes after that and was crying and said, ‘The house is burning down.’"
In the time it took Cottrell to get from his house to Barrett’s, something remarkable happened.
The entire Flowery Branch varsity boys team, and some members of the Falcons junior varsity squad, showed up at 4969 Turk Road.
"I remember I kept hearing people talk and when I turned around I see all these coaches and the whole basketball team – the whole varsity and some of the JV, and they had surrounded Joshua and Zach and were praying with them," Baugh said.
"There are not words that can describe how powerful that was, that those boys came together at that time for my boys."
"It calmed me down more so than it would have if I had been alone," Barrett said. "I really can’t ask for a better group of guys and they were just there."
Getting to the house was a near impossibility, and staying near it without the proper equipment wasn’t recommended, so the family stood together at the end of the road.
Barrett would, every once in a while, start walking toward the house.
Each time he was flanked by teammates.
"I remember standing there watching the team with him and a couple of them would walk with Josh down to the house to watch it burn and then walk him back. It was just really touching to see," Cottrell said. "That’s really all I can say."
For two hours, what had become a gathering of the Flowery Branch family watched and waited, not knowing what for, just knowing that they were there for each other and there together.
Around 11 p.m., the contingency, which had grown to include players’ parents as well, left and went to Waffle House to get coffee and gather their thoughts.
"It’s going to sound funny, but I finally got to the point where I realized there was nothing I could do," Baugh said. "It had been a gorgeous house, just gorgeous."
The family stayed at the restaurant until around midnight and then, facing the inevitable, checked themselves into the Country Inn and Suites in Oakwood.
At 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 19, the firefighters who had worked diligently for the better part of six hours, put out the last flame and while doing so found Emma.
"Lieutenant Jerry Palmer found Emma," Baugh said. "He called us about 2:30 and said that they found her and had a little funeral for her there on site."
They buried the pup on the opposite side of the driveway from the house, right beside what had been her favorite tree.
"She was the greatest thing that ever happened to my family," Baugh said. "She was like one of our kids, just so sweet and everyone that met her loved her."
For family, for Emma
Life goes on, at least that’s how the saying goes, and Barrett and his family weren’t immune to that.
In fact, life moved on rather quickly.
For months Barrett and his teammates had been looking forward to Wednesday, Dec. 19.
For months the team had stared at the date on their schedule when they would play in Philips Arena, before an Atlanta Hawks game, against Enterprise, Ala., a the state region finalist in 2007.
The game, once thought of as a novelty, had now taken on a whole new meaning.
"You could tell that the guys were on a mission for Josh and his family," Cottrell said. "They were going to play well because they knew he needed something positive."
Barrett began playing the game of basketball at age five and hasn’t stopped. According to Barrett, the game is his love and it "gives me a way to be by myself and have fun.
"I enjoy everything about the game; I just love it."
For those passionate about a sport, the ability to get lost in it can be both a blessing and a curse. On Dec. 19, for 17-year-old Barrett, being able to immerse himself in the normalcy of a game was nothing short of a miracle.
"It wasn’t a question as to whether or not I would play" Barrett said. "I had to play.
"It’s my favorite thing to do in life. I had to play."
"He’s so dedicated to his team, he’s so dedicated to winning," Baugh said. "He said he wanted to go out there and block everything out and win."
When the team arrived at the arena in Atlanta, the awe of it all took a backseat to the reality their teammate was facing.
"I wanted, of course, to dedicate the game to my family and my dog that had died in the fire," Barrett said. "When we got there my teammates got me and we got in a little huddle and just said, ‘We’re going to do this the best we can and hope for the best.’"
The team took the floor that afternoon not knowing how things would pan out but knowing one thing for sure, they were playing for a higher purpose; they were playing for Barrett, his family and for Emma.
To serve as a reminder throughout the game, each member of the Flowery Branch team had written "Emma" on masking tape and stuck the tape on their socks.
They were playing not just to win, but to help one of their leaders overcome.
"I first thought, ‘Joshua’s not going to have a good game and if he makes a turnover or whatever, it’s ok today because he has so much on his mind,’" Baugh said.
Baugh short-changed her son’s resolve and was, like the rest of the Flowery Branch family, both shocked and elated when Barrett scored a career-high 29 points including six 3-pointers, two from NBA range.
"He got the ball like he always does and shot as many times as he always does, they were just all going in," Cottrell said. "When he really got going our guys did a great job of getting him the ball. It just seemed like everything kind of went right. They are so giving and so unselfish.
"It was, for a coach and father, it was a blessing," Cottrell added. "To know that all the good things you talk about through athletics, to actually see it happen, I don’t know what to say."
"It was like everything that happened was put on hold because here was my son standing there playing his heart out for us," Baugh said.
When all was said and done, Barrett had managed to lead his team to a 30-point win. He had come through the fire was now looking at it from the other side.
From the ashes
In the minutes, hours and days that followed the fire, the outpouring of communal love toward Barrett’s family was extensive.
"My biggest concern after things kind of settled down the night of the fire was the fact that it was finals at school," Baugh said. "They had school the next day and my boys had no clothes."
That problem was quickly taken care of as teammates supplied shirts, pants and shoes, and coaches gave coats.
"I’ll never forget coach Cottrell taking off his coat and putting it on me," Baugh said. "He and coach Alfonso are angels in my book."
From gift cards and money to clothes and food, those that found out about Barrett’s family responded.
Flowery Branch High School gave, East Hall High School gave, and various individuals from throughout the county gave.
"To me, Flowery Branch is the best high school ever," Baugh said. "They all came together and gave gift cards, money and clothes. The people at East Hall have been a blessing, too."
"We are just so thankful," Barrett said.
The family spent 10 nights and 11 days in the Country Inn and Suites, including a somber Christmas in the lobby of the hotel.
"The people at the hotel became family to us," Baugh said. "They really opened their arms to us and were just so sweet."
While the hotel provided a warm place to sleep for the family, nothing compares to the comforts of a home and on Dec. 29 Barrett, his mother, stepfather and brothers moved in to a temporary home located on Sherwood Drive.
From toiletries to televisions, soap to sofas, Barrett and his family had lost everything but each other, so their insurance company furnished the new house for them.
"They provided everything down to the silverware we eat with," Baugh said. "You don’t think about, ‘How are we going to take a bath?’ until you don’t have the means to take one. They even provided soap, they’ve been just great."
The family was able to preserve one thing from 4969 Turk Road – Emma. Following the makeshift funeral, and at the family’s request, Lieutenant Palmer returned to the site of the fire at 8:30 the morning after and exhumed Emma’s body. He took it to the crematory and the remains of the so-loved dog sit in an urn on the family’s new mantle.
While Barrett and his family seemingly have all their immediate needs, putting a life back together from square one isn’t easy, and starting is the hardest part.
For Baugh, the same question gets asked in her mind everyday, "Where do I start?"
"It’s been like a nightmare, I feel like I’m going to wake up any minute," she said. "Everything I’ve worked for to try and give the boys a decent life is gone. Joshua can’t just walk in his closet anymore and get his basketball stuff on. He doesn’t have basketball stuff anymore.
"I know that God has something planned for us. I know that bigger and better things are to come of this, I have to know that."
"We’re getting life back on track," Barrett said. "We’ll never forget it of course, but we are trying to get by."