Joe Condron’s fire-damaged home stood dark and vacant for months as he and his family tried to cope with the blaze that killed his granddaughter on her second birthday.
He occasionally went to his home of 37 years and tinkered around in the garage or swept the floors. But memories of the June 2 fire that took LilyAnn’s life were overwhelming.
“I was like a blind man lost in the desert looking for water,” Condron said. “I was so lost that I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Now an outpouring of help from community groups, churches, neighborhoods and businesses is turning Condron’s heartbreak into hope.
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John Thielman, a longtime friend of the Condrons, has led an effort to rebuild the home, on Land Rush Drive in north Arlington. The Condrons had no homeowners insurance and were so grief-stricken that they were having difficulty forming a plan to rehabilitate the home, he said.
Thielman, who is active in community groups and his church, First United Methodist of Arlington, found plenty of support to undertake the project.
“I’ve got a very strong faith,” he said. “I know people are really good out there. I just ask, and within 15 seconds people are saying yes.”
The fire, which officials believe was started by an electrical appliance near a mattress, caused an estimated $140,000 damage to the home.
On Saturday, a dozen volunteers shoveled piles of dirty insulation and drywall from inside the home and carried them in wheelbarrows to a giant dumpster in the driveway. Wearing face masks against the dust, they pulled nails from wooden framing and packed the family’s belongings for storage.
‘It hits home’
The home bears reminders of the vibrant little girl who lived there. A pink baby doll stroller and a small plastic Cinderella carriage were among the toys that filled boxes in one room.
Volunteer Elizabeth Savage said helping the family is a way for her to give back to those who helped her in 1995 when her own three children were killed in a fire.
“It hits home because they lost a 2-year-old,” said Savage, founder of Stand Together Against Nationwide Domestic Violence, whose group is part of the rebuilding effort. “I know how it feels to lose everything, especially a baby.”
The rebuild has been emotional for LilyAnn’s mother. Joann Condron, 35, grew up in the house and was living there with LilyAnn and her 4-year-old son, Carter, at the time of the fire.
At first, she said, she was upset that the house was being rebuilt because it brings back painful memories. But now she is thankful that so many people are eager to help.
“It makes me feel good to know my parents are being looked after,” she said.
Joann Condron has coped with her loss by starting a memorial of decorative butterflies that are attached to the plywood that covers the front window of the bedroom where her daughter died. Friends and children from her son’s preschool at New World United Methodist Church in Arlington have contributed to the collection, she said.
Some of the butterflies are covered with glitter and sequins; her son’s classmates colored paper butterflies and signed their names.
“She loved butterflies,” said Condron, who recently found birthday gifts for her daughter inside the house and said a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s had been planned for the day she died. “Bless her heart, she was something else.”
Joann Condron has turned to photography to process her loss. She has taken dozens of photos of the butterfly wall and the home. One shows the outline of a brass cross that had been hanging in the bedroom where her daughter died. In another, sunshine splashes through the bedroom window and onto the floor where LilyAnn was found.
“It’s hard pulling up and not seeing her looking out that bay window for me,” Condron said, adding that she doubts she will return to live in the home because the memories are too painful.
Thielman hopes the work is complete by fall. City officials have expressed concern about the home because of the lack of progress, but his group has a work permit, and in recent weeks the pace has increased, he said.
Efforts to gut the interior, which sustained extensive fire and smoke damage, are nearly complete, enabling the focus to shift to rebuilding, Thielman said.
Many businesses have offered their services for little or no cost. Several restaurants have agreed to set aside a portion of their proceeds over several days to put toward the rebuilding, he said. Others are contributing food for the workers at no cost.
Neighbors have also given the family thousands of dollars in gift cards, Thielman said.
Where the task of rebuilding once seemed overwhelming, Joe Condron now looks forward to what he describes as the home’s resurrection.
“On a daily basis I am rendered speechless at the Christian outpouring of love in the community,” he said. “I just thank the Lord on a daily basis that we are being blessed.”