No home for the holidays

Two families lose everything in fire

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Judy Benoit, 65, was the only one home when the fire broke out last Wednesday night. With black smoke filling the kitchen, Benoit grabbed the family dog and tried to get out of her upstairs apartment.

The smoke was thick like chocolate pudding, Benoit said. “I could feel pressure against my face, I could feel my throat close. There was no way you could see anything.” Benoit believes she passed out, letting go of the dog’s collar, as she fell down the outside staircase. She woke up at the bottom of the stairs next to the propane tank.

The tank later exploded. The fire consumed the house on Chapman Lane, and then it collapsed. Two Williston families lost their homes, and virtually everything they owned. Judy Benoit, her son Shawn, 30, and his girlfriend Molly McHugh lost their apartment above the garage of the farmhouse owned by Lynne and Stephen Moon. The Moons and their daughters Hayley, an eighth grader, and Aubrey, a high school senior, lost the home that’s been in Lynne’s family for more than 40 years. Fire officials say an electrical problem underneath a kitchen was the cause of the fire.

The families lost the things of daily life that many of us take for granted and rarely think about – clothes, dishes, bath towels and beds. But they also lost the things that can’t be replaced.

“There was so much of my parents in that house,” Moon said. “So much history and family heritage and so much of my mother.” Moon’s mother passed away eight years ago in January.

Both families lost much-beloved pets. The Benoits lost their three-year-old Boxer, who climbed out of Judy’s grip when she fell. The Moons lost Chester, a lhasa apso who would have turned 11 on Saturday, and Gabby, a rabbit. The whereabouts of two of the Moons’ cats is still unknown. The other two cats – Tommy and Griffin — made it out, and are now safe at home.

The outpouring of community support has been overwhelming, both families said.

“Things are being thought of before we think of them and just provided,” Moon said. “The night of the fire before we even left the scene we had two cars full of stuff – groceries, clothing, bedding.”

A lot of support has coalesced at Williston Central School for the Moon family.

“I have had children come in and give gift certificates that were given to them,” said staff member Dee Goulette. “I have had children that have donated birthday money.” Two boys went door-to-door in their neighborhood and collected $419, Goulette said. A kindergartener came in with three dimes, a nickel and two pennies to drop in the collection box.

“When you go through something like this it completely renews your faith in human kindness and just how a community comes together,” Moon said.

Both families said they are grateful for the outpouring of support. Still there is a long road ahead to rebuilding their lives.

Shawn, who does social work in Montpelier, also is a student at Champlain College and has two on-line classes that start Jan. 9; his brand-new computer and all of his books were among the things he lost.

Judy Benoit did not have renter’s insurance, according to her daughter Tina Benoit, so the details of the Moon’s homeowner’s insurance policy will be critical. Judy Benoit is staying at the Hampton Inn in Colchester until she can find a new home, possibly in a senior community.

The Moons are now in a furnished rental house in Colchester where they will stay until they can rebuild, an effort Moon said will start as soon as insurance agents say the debris can be cleared.

Christmas plans for both families have changed. Judy Benoit’s four children and their families had planned to gather at Benoit’s for “a big Grandma/Nana meal,” her daughter Tina said. The Moons usually hosted Lynne’s extended family for Christmas. Both families have moved their gatherings to other relatives’ houses.

Sitting in the rental house Tuesday afternoon, the youngest Moon, Hayley, laughed as Tommy the cat wrapped his front paws around her arm and gnawed on her wrist.

“You always say you shouldn’t take things for granted, but nobody really realizes that until something like this happens,” Hayley said.

Benoit shared similar sentiments. She sustained “quite a few bruises, but nothing major” from her fall, she said, and it took three days for the smoke to get out of her respiratory system.

“I’m just thankful to be alive,” she said. “It could have been a lot worse.”