They'll rise from the ashes as strong as ever

HAMILTON
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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials
St. Petersburg Times
published September 2, 2003

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If you were to try to imagine the worst tragedy that could befall your family, right after loss of life would be the loss of your home.

Think about it. One minute, you are peacefully going about your day, your thoughts on a to-do list of chores, obligations and plans. The next, everything that you have is gone.

In a flash on Saturday afternoon, that nightmare visited the Murphy family of Inverness. Days later, they are still are reeling. They will recover, but life will never be the same.

Kevin Murphy, a freshman at Citrus High, was relaxing at home with a bowl of ice cream when he heard a loud pop outside. Kevin went to the front door and saw a stranger in his driveway doing something very unusual. The fellow was holding the family's garden hose and spraying their garage.

Kevin opened a door leading from the inside hallway to the garage and met an acrid cloud of thick smoke. He grabbed a telephone and ran outside.

The garage was fully engulfed in flames. Kevin's room, which adjoins the garage and where he had been relaxing just moments before, was already disappearing into the roaring blaze.

The phone calls started flying, to 911, to Kevin's mom, working at Publix in Beverly Hills, to friends and neighbors.

Joanne Murphy got home in time to see firefighters begin to get the upper hand. The fire, though, had done its worst. What the intense heat and flames didn't destroy, the smoke and water had ruined.

Just like that, her home of 17 years, and all of her possessions, were ashes.

What do you do when life strikes you with such a body blow? Nature and grief take over, and you collapse under the weight of your anguish.

At this moment, a photographer from a different newspaper, despite being asked by Mrs. Murphy to leave, snapped a photo. The next morning, as Mrs. Murphy was still in shock, she saw that picture splashed on the front page. She got to relive the worst moment of her life all over again.

While the fire investigators sifted through the smoldering rubble (the electrical system seems to be the initial suspect), Mrs. Murphy's friends and families began swarming to her aid on Saturday.

Full disclosure compels me to report that I have been blessed for more than a decade to call Joanne, husband Jim and son Kevin very close friends. Despite having spent countless hours yakking and laughing with Joanne and Kevin at numerous Boy Scout camping trips and events through the years, at that moment on Saturday, there were no words available. Hugs and tears were all that remained.

An amazing scene began to unfold on Joanne's scorched front lawn. Joanne's family, real and extended, came from every direction. Kevin's Scout friends and leaders arrived, as did his football coach. A Publix coworker showed up with coolers packed with donated food.

When Joanne's daughter and a friend went to an Inverness store to grab a couple of shirts and toiletries for the family, they ran into a family friend who already was going down the aisles with a new backpack for Kevin, filling it with school supplies.

Kevin had run out of the house barefoot with literally the clothes on his back and finding a new wardrobe, especially shoes, is going to be a challenge. Kevin, a manchild who as a freshman stands around 6-foot-4 and weighs more than 300 pounds, is not easy to clothe. The family was able to locate a pair of shoes, size 17, in Orlando.

Neighbors who have lived on the same street for years but never found a reason to introduce themselves, now walked up to offer hugs, food and clothing. Total strangers pulled up in cars and trucks and said, you don't know me but I have clothes and furniture for you.

We have an empty guest room you can use, said friends and strangers alike. The parents of another Scout family offered an empty guest house for the Murphys.

Jim Murphy, a long-haul truck driver, was in Nebraska when he got the call that his house was destroyed. He began an anxiety-filled 24 hours getting to a terminal, then an airport for a hastily arranged flight to Orlando then a ride to Inverness. Like the rest of his family, his head is still spinning.

Friends and family tried picking through the sooty remains on Sunday afternoon, salvaging what few items escaped the flames. From time to time, something would surface, some of Kevin's elementary school handiwork, a burned wedding dress, Joanne's mother's jewelry. And then, the tears would flow once more.

To know Joanne is to recognize that her seemingly tough New York attitude hides a thoroughly sweet and caring heart. It pained her to see so many people coming out of the woodwork to help her, seeing as how she is usually the one lending a hand. As more than one person told her, had it happened to anyone else, she would have been the first person there to help. Now, be quiet and let us help you!

Bolstered by the wide support network, the family will slowly get back on its feet. They will replace the necessary modern conveniences, but much of what constituted their lives is now gone. Look around your own home and see how much of what you have you could never replace. It is a sobering thought.

The Murphys will get through this and will emerge as strong as ever. Their family and friends won't settle for anything less. And neither, of course, will Joanne.