Officials investigating cause of Fort White house fire

State fire officials are still trying to determine the cause of a Thanksgiving Day fire that left a Fort White family without a home.

"We've lost everything," said Crystal DuFord, 24, who lost her mobile home on Beaver Street in Fort White to a Thursday night fire.

DuFord said she was asleep in the mobile home around 9:30 p.m. when the family's 3-year old German shepherd entered the bedroom and whined, waking her.

DuFord said that when she woke, she saw the light from flames in the kitchen. She said she rushed to get her children - 9-year-old Valerie, 5-year-old Jasmine, and 2-year-old Ryan Jr. - out of the house.

DuFord and her children escaped injury, but the family's two dogs and a pet rabbit are believed to have been killed in the fire.

"I saw them (the dogs) in the kitchen as I was leaving the house," she said. "I called them but they didn't come, and I don't know why."

Thursday fire wasn't the first to strike this stretch of Beaver Street. Crystal DuFord's parents, Don and Cheryl Mincey, live next door. Their house caught fire in 1999, caused by wiring in a ceiling fan, family members said.

Crystal DuFord's husband, Ryan DuFord, said he was at the Minceys' house watching a football game when the fire broke out. He said the fire apparently started only a few minutes after he left the mobile home.

Family members said the DuFords' mobile home was insured.

Fort White and Columbia County firefighters arrived to put out the fire, but the mobile home was destroyed.

The fire apparently started in the attic above the kitchen, said Robert Johnson, an investigator for the Division of State Fire Marshal.

Johnson said that due to the extent of the damage, it would probably be impossible to determine the cause of the fire.

"I saw them (the dogs) in the kitchen as I was leaving the house," she said. "I called them but they didn't come, and I don't know why."

Thanksgiving fire destroys home: German shepherd Lucy saves the family, but dies

Lake City Reporter
November 29, 2002

Ryan and Crystale Duford were left homeless Thursday when a fire destroyed the home they have lived in for the past two years. The couples' possessions were lost, including several pets. 'What we're wearing is what we got,' Crystale said.

FORT WHITE Tugging a clump of her youngest daughter's hair, Crystale Duford burst into the night Thursday as the flames inside her home crackled at her heels.

A couple of minutes had passed since she was awoken in her bed to find smoke coming under her bedroom door. Stepping back from the blaze, Crystale watched the home she made with her husband Ryan and three children burn to the ground.

"That stuff over there can be replaced," Crystale, 24, said from her next-door neighbors' home Friday. The black frame of her trailer stood in clear view. "It'll be hard. We've been working on that home. We've been married seven years."

Crystale said she was sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner at her parents house and decided to retire early. She only lived about 150 yards from her parents, so she walked home and tucked in her 9-year-old Valerie and 5-year-old Jasmine.

Crystale went into her bedroom and put Ryan Jr., 2, into his crib, then laid down. "When I hit the bed I was out," she said.

About 30 minutes later Crystale felt Lucy, her 90-pound German shepherd, nudge her side. She remembers turning over, then Lucy's body suddenly hovering over her.

"When she jumped up on the bed was when I completely woke up," Crystale said. "It didn't take but a split second to realize. I opened my eyes and I could smell the smoke and see it."

Crystale rushed to the bedside crib, pulled Ryan Jr. into her arms, "and literally threw him out the front door."

She ran down the hallway to her daughters' rooms screaming, "Get up! Get up! The house is on fire!"

Valerie woke but was slow to react. Crystale grabbed her by the arm and bolted to Jasmine's room, where her youngest daughter lay still. "I grabbed her by the wrist and just drug her all the way through the house," Crystale said. "I lost her somewhere along the way by the front door."

Crystale pushed Valerie out the door and told her to run to the neighbors' to call the police. She turned back and saw nothing but fire and smoke.

"I couldn't see anything," Crystale said. "I reached down to grab my other daughter and all I felt was a head of hair. So that's what I grabbed and pulled her out."

When his neighbor frantically told him his house was on fire, Ryan sprinted from his in-laws' home and with each step saw the flames grow. Ryan's father-in-law Donald Mincey followed close behind, and they both heard the cries from their neighbor saying Crystale and the children where "in the house."

"I opened the door because I thought the kids were in there," said Ryan, 31. "I opened the door and the flames were just everywhere."

Mincey ran hard to the front door, but in the darkness, couldn't see a wire across the gate securing the dogs in the front yard. His face clipped the wire and Mincey dropped to the ground.

"That's how I broke my nose," said Mincey, 58. There was a swollen gash high on his nose and left cheekbone. "But that wire probably saved my life. By the time I got to the door and grabbed the door handle, it was so hot, I knew not to open it. And as soon as I jumped down from the porch the door just exploded. Fire was coming out."

Mincey ran to the side window where he knew his daughter and grandson would be sleeping. "The bed was right there by the window."

He reached back to punch through the window and climb inside when he heard his neighbor from across the road, calling to say his daughter and grandchildren were safe in her home.

"The miscommunication right there almost caused men to lose their life," Mincey said. "I was running in. Of course I'm going in. If I get burned I get burned."

The roof collapsed before firefighters arrived 25 minutes later. Fire trucks surrounded the home, two engines in front and two water tankers at the end of the long driveway leading to Little Beaver Road.

"It wasn't quick enough to save a dwelling, however, for the distance that they had to travel, they did well," Mincey said. "It was fully engulfed. It was just like the largest bonfire you've ever seen. It was gone."

An investigator from the state Fire Marshal's office arrived after the flames had died down, but, "he said there was so much intense heat he would come back later."

Circling the wreckage the next day, Crystale gave thanks to her dog Lucy for warning her before the fire spread out of control. She said the last time she saw her dog, Lucy was standing by the bedroom door.

"We're hoping we'll find some remains that we can at least bury," Crystale said.

"If it hadn't have been for the dog and her getting them children out, I'm afraid I would be visiting the funeral home," Mincey said.
Mincey said Thursday night may not have been the first time Lucy saved his daughter. Crystale suffers from seizures, he said, and Lucy would always send out an alarm when Crystale fell.

"This dog was a very, very special dog," he said. "When my daughter has seizures, she would put her down, kind of get down on top of her and start barking like crazy."

Lucy can't protect Crystale now, and her seizure medication was left burning in the fire. Crystale said everything was lost, her children's clothes and toys, family heirlooms and photo albums. Besides Lucy, the family lost Victor, a Dalmatian, a pet bunny and two fish aquariums.

"The material things, we'll replace what we have to have," Mincey said.

"To see my kids bouncing around the yard, I can't replace my kids," Crystale said.

Mincey said he holds the mortgage on the mobile home and has mortgage insurance to cover the payoff. "Other than that, I don't think there's anything."

The Red Cross offered assistance by delivering vouchers for the kids to shop for new clothes. Crystale said Ryan Jr. was only wearing a diaper when they escaped and one of her daughters was wearing underwear.

Crystal said she thinks the fire was started in the kitchen, where there is a furnace, a heater, stove, and a breaker box. She said she always left the light on over the stove, but doesn't know if that sparked the fire or not.

The Duford family has temporarily moved into Mincey's trailer and will try to rebuild a home together. They said they had recently remodeled the trailer, including new carpets, vinyl and dry wall. Inside the rubble two metal posts were the only things that did not melt in the fire. Between the posts is a heap of ash and scarred wood. Ryan said his son had been sleeping quietly there when Lucy woke Crystale.

"The important thing is that at least we got the family," he said.