SEARSMONT, Maine — A newlywed couple who lost everything over the weekend in a six-alarm house fire is getting help from friends and the community as they try to rebuild their lives.
Susie Tofani O’Brien and Kevin O’Brien, who were married on Aug. 20, had just come back from their honeymoon when they noticed a peculiar smell Sunday morning in their rented Pines Road home.
Then things got bad fast.
“They were in the house when the first explosion happened,” Stephen Wickenden, who built and owned the all-wood two-story house, said Wednesday. “They did pretty much just run.”
After grabbing their dogs and chickens, Susie, 29, who is a child speech language pathologist, and Kevin, 33, who works at athenahealth in Belfast, escaped to their driveway. Still in their pajamas, they watched their home — filled with all their possessions and wedding presents — burn down.
Searsmont Fire Chief James Ames said it was lucky they moved quickly. The firefighters received the page at 9:10 a.m., and when they arrived at the house nine minutes later, it already was engulfed in flames.
“It was a red glow,” Ames said.
Because the fire was so fierce, the 30 or so firefighters from Searsmont, Appleton, Belmont, Morrill, Liberty and Montville were able only to try to extinguish the blaze from the outside.
The intense heat destroyed Kevin O’Briens’ vintage truck and van, although Susie had left the keys in her car’s ignition and was able to move it to safety, according to her friend Christina Kelly.
An investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s Office spent Monday going through the wreckage, ultimately declaring the cause to be undetermined.
Wickenden said that neighbors have told him there were multiple explosions during the fire, which the fire marshal explained could have come from cans of paint. The explosions could not have come from a gas leak, as the house did not have propane. He said that the custom-built house might have burned so fast because it had no sheetrock but instead had wood walls, wood floors and wood ceilings.
“It was a beautiful house. I’m sorry to see it go,” he said, estimating the property’s value at about $200,000.
The house was insured.
Wickenden said that the couple has benefited from the kindness of the community. A firefighter from Searsmont who is roughly the same size as Kevin O’Brien gave him “a bunch of his new clothes,” Wickenden said.
Kelly and others quickly have begun organizing a raffle and silent auction for the O’Briens and have created a website where people can donate money and goods, including household items.
Kelly described the community response as “really great.”
“It’s been one of those sort of goose-bump things that make me really proud to be from this area,” she said. “People are just emailing, asking, ‘How can we help?’ ‘What can we do?’”
The O’Briens are staying with Susie’s parents in Camden for the time being, she said.
“They’re really still in shock,” she said. “I think they’re doing the absolute best they can.”
Local businesspeople and artists have begun donating goods for the raffle that will be held in October. So far donated raffle items include two Thai massages from Ebb and Flow Massage Therapy of Camden, stand-up paddle board lessons for two, a handmade quilt by local artisan Nancy Wheelwright and a custom ski package from Snowenjava in Rockland.
Kelly described her friends as the “nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
“They’re both so grateful and overwhelmed and feel loved and supported by the community,” she said.
For more information or to help the couple, visit susieandkevinobrien.wordpress.com.