Finding the positive within the ashes of tragedy
By Sarah Shurge – Your life can change at any given moment. For long-time Wayne resident Don Justice, that moment occurred last year on May 12th, 2022.
It started out as an average day. Justice was on his way to visit one of his four sons. His wife of 52 years, Kathleen, and their two year old great-grandson was also in the car with him. As the three of them headed to South Lyon, Justice received a phone call that would change his life.
The call was from the Wayne Police Department. They identified themselves on the phone and told Justice that he needed to return home as quickly as possible because his house was on fire.
“I remember I was on Van Born Road and Belleville Road when I got the call. After I hung up, my wife and I looked at each other and started singing the worship song ‘Through It All’ by Andraé Crouch,” said Justice.
With uncertainty of what to expect, Justice turned the car around and returned home.
It was a busy scene when Justice arrived on site. There were firefighters, police officers, fire trucks, police cars, and a crowd of spectators. Flames were coming out of the roof of the house where he and his wife had raised four sons, seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild together.
“When we got back to the house, firemen were already in action to try to prevent the fire from spreading. At that time, we didn’t know how much damage there was, we were frustrated and upset,” said Justice. “My wife and I got back in the car and started praying for safety and got our minds off of ourselves.”
Wayne Deputy Chief/Fire Marshal Jeremie Schneider was one of the first to arrive on the scene.
“Our crews made an initial interior attack and knocked the fire down. We found the origin where the fire started and applied water. Then we overhauled the area,” said Deputy Chief Schneider.
“Overhaul” is when parts of the ceiling and walls are torn down to ensure the fire does not extend into any other areas of the building.
“Then we sent a crew to the roof to cut ventilation holes,” said Deputy Chief Schneider. “This is to get the gases out of the home. Smoke is fuel. So anytime you see smoke, that is actual fuel that will burn.”
As holes are cut, the smoke is being cooled and allowed to escape.
“The firemen were using saws and cutting holes everywhere. If they had not gotten there early, it [the house] would have burned all the way down. But no other buildings burned and no one was hurt. Not even our dog,” said Justice.
When firefighters arrive at a fire, Deputy Chief Schneider explained there are two things they do: 1) Go in to extinguish the fire. 2) Go in and do a search for occupants and pets.
“Once the fire was out, the fire chief asked if there was anything they could get out of the house for us,” said Justice. “They got our dog out. She was laying at the top of the steps and they brought her to us.”
Justice has a 3 year old Pug named Bobo that was completely unharmed during the fire.
“Life safety is always a priority. Once humans are out of the home, we move to pets,” said Deputy Chief Schneider. “We were able to stop the fire fairly quickly but there was a considerable amount of damage. The things that can’t be replaced are what we try to salvage. Even during fire operations, we try to move things to the side instead of destroying them.”
All of Kathleen’s doll collections were salvaged from the fire without any water or smoke damage. However, five rooms of the house were damaged in the fire including the upstairs and the back rooms.
“We were watching our great-grandson for two weeks while his parents were in Carolina, and I’m so grateful my wife decided to come to South Lyon with me and bring him because the room he was staying in was one of the most damaged rooms,” said Justice.
So what can cause a house fire like this?
“Every fire is different. The job of the fire marshall is really to rule out possible ignition sources,” said Deputy Chief Schneider. “After the investigation for Don’s house, where the fire started, all sources were eliminated except for electrical. The classification was accidental electrical.”
“Accidental electrical” means an unintentional fire caused by an electrical problem.
“That house was Kathleen’s mother’s house for years. She was devastated and taking it pretty hard,” said Justice. “A tragedy like this can separate people if they are on different pages. But we’re not materialistic. It’s brought us closer together. Our attitude and morale has grown stronger because we realize that these things happen.”
Although accidents happen, you might be wondering if anything can be done to minimize the chances of something like this happening to your home.
Deputy Chief Schneider provided a list of the main things every homeowner should know:
Power strips – Use high quality power strips and only use them for low voltage applications. No kitchen appliance (refrigerator, microwave, coffee pot, etc.) should ever be plugged into a power strip.
Daisy chain – Never plug an extension cord into another extension cord or a power strip.
Phone chargers – Any phone chargers that are not being used should always be unplugged from the outlet or power strip.
Lithium batteries – Once anything with a lithium battery is fully charged, unplug it and take it off the charger.
Smoke detectors – Make sure each sleeping room, the hallway outside the rooms, and each floor (basement, main floor, second floor) have a smoke detector that is working with batteries in place.
Carbon monoxide detector – Make sure a carbon monoxide detector is in place and working properly.
Fire extinguishers – Every house should have at least one fire extinguisher. Especially one in the kitchen (class K) and one in the garage (class ABC).
“We’ve had quite a few fires in the City of Wayne where a power strip and cell phone cord were not being used,” said Deputy Chief Schneider. “The circuits in those chargers are so delicate that eventually it’s going to fail, either where it doesn’t work and you throw it away, or it will fail to where it gets hot and burns.”
Since the fire, Justice and his family had been living in a two bedroom suite in a hotel.
“We’ve been through a lot of trials and tribulations, but if we stay strong and rely on the Father, we can endure a lot,” said Justice. “I endured Vietnam. I married Kathleen on June 12th, 1967. We went through a lot, being separated and not knowing what tomorrow would bring. I grew a strong faith then.”
Justice and Kathleen continue to clean their house of things that were damaged by the smoke, and reminisce on memories of their family growing up there.
“Don was very easy to work with,” said Deputy Chief Schneider. “Being a firefighter is very dynamic. There’s a huge mental aspect, as well as physical aspect. But my favorite part, honestly, is to be able to help people on their worst day.”
Deputy Chief Schneider has been with the Wayne Fire Department since 2007.
“I was very impressed to see how professional and calm the firefighters were at doing their job. And the police were in control of the crowd, making sure everyone was back away from the fire,” said Justice. “We spent time thanking God that we weren’t home and no one was hurt. Not even the dog.”
For more information about the Wayne Fire Department, visit cityofwayne.com/158/Fire-Department or call (734)722-1111.