October 23, 2018

Time stands still as fire consumes home, possessions and animals

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ALGER — There was a chill to the air as Vikki Sutherly hustled around her house getting ready to go visit her daughter.
“I was home alone,” she said. “My husband had left to take our grandchildren to the mall. The house started to feel colder, so I let it go for maybe 15 minutes or so and decided to go check the wood burner.”
However, as she went to check on the woodstove in the garage Feb. 11, Vikki discovered that would be an impossible task because behind the door was a wall of thick black smoke.
Hoping to avoid the loss of everything, Vikki raced to call 911. But from that moment on, time seemed to stand still.
At the time, Vikki couldn’t understand why the fire department personnel weren’t there in a moment. Vikki was a self-admitted mess.
“I was just a panic,” she said. “I have never had a fire. I gave her all the information I knew she needed. I told her it’s just my garage, my garage is on fire.”
Vikki was frustrated that the dispatcher kept her on the line, hoping to prevent her from entering the house and putting herself in harm’s way.
From the other end of the line, the dispatcher calmly worked to gain important information through Vikki’s panic.
Concerns grew at dispatch as Vikki explained the garage contained welding equipment — including an acetylene tank that could explode. There was also confusion over the presence and location of the propane tank.
“Everybody is coming as fast as they can,” dispatcher Draves can be heard saying on the 911 call obtained by the Herald from Ogemaw County Central Dispatch. “It is going to seem like it’s taking forever. Especially with the roads the way that they are. But believe me we have everybody coming to help you.”
Draves was right — for Vikki the entire situation seemed to last for eternity.
“It took so long,” Vikki recalled. “Oh my God, it just took so long. I am not thinking that these are volunteer firemen. I am not thinking that they were at home and not at the fire hall.”
Records from central dispatch show the first rig was en route six minutes after the call from Vikki was initiated at 3:13 p.m., and the first unit arrived on scene only eight minutes later.
The roads that morning were deep with snow, and while the main corridors were beginning to be cleared at the time of the fire, in Vikki’s neck of the woods on the rural portion of Morrison Road in Alger, they still presented a challenge to travelers.
Throughout the call, Vikki’s attention was drawn to the 15 animals that were soon to perish in the fire. She pleaded with Draves — who was working on the misinformation from Vikki that the home and garage were attached — to let her go inside the house to save the animals.
Meanwhile, Draves tried to learn how many animals were inside the home so she could relay that information to the fire department. However, she was noticeably confused for a moment when Vikki informed her that one of the animals was a 50-pound tortoise.
Vikki and her husband fostered animals, caring for them when others wouldn’t or couldn’t.
The house appeared safe at the time. In the moment, Vikki couldn’t understand why the dispatcher wouldn’t allow her into the home. However, in only a few short minutes the winds shifted and the fire quickly began to consume the home.
Now the weight of the world rested on Vikki’s shoulders when she realized the animals she brought in to care for were going to die in the fire.
Losing their lives in the fire that day were the tortoise who lived in the garage with his two gerbil friends, two ferrets, four cats, four chickens, a macaw named Jojo and an African grey parrot who lived in the house.
“That is such a tragedy in itself,” Vikki said. “That they died in that fire.”
The tragedy of the day didn’t stop there. The house Vikki and her husband Tom Jones were living in was a bank repossession and was uninsured at the time.
“I have never had anything like this happen,” she said. “This was a bank repo that we bought and I was having issues with the deed. Money was part of those issues and I allowed myself to think I wouldn’t have a fire and I would be OK until I was able to get insurance.”
Vikki broke down as the memories raced back.
“I feel awful because there was so much time that I could have gotten the animals out of there,” she recalled. “They were animals that needed to be helped. They were needy and broken animals that nobody wanted. We got them healthy and then they died in the fire.”
“It was complete devastation of our life,” she continued. “There is nothing. It is unbelievable how quickly everything is gone.”
The fire caused a total loss for the family, destroying all of their possessions accumulated in their 38-year relationship, including the motorcycle the two logged thousands and thousands of miles on.
Now, without insurance, the couple is staying with their children and considering how to rebuild their lives and recover from the disaster.
A group has stepped forward to help with a pancake dinner fundraiser at the West Branch Masonic Lodge April 8 from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. The couple’s daughter Judith has also set up a GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/tom-and-vikki-jones.
Despite the loss, Vikki couldn’t say enough for the dispatchers and first responders.
“They were absolutely the sweetest people ever,” she said. “They were apologetic and they were so nice. I know most of the firefighters that were out there from the HOG rally and from living here.”

This story was updated from our print version. The date and time for the fundraiser was changed after the print deadline.

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