Fire destroys house, belongings, but spares family

Blaze destroyed house, $300,000 in property

Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Tess Otness wanted her favorite Raggedy Ann doll - the one that kept away the night and protected the 10-year-old girl from all things creeping in it - before she went to bed Tuesday.

How to help

A fund for the Otness family has been created at Alaska Pacific Bank. Donation boxes are at Super Bear in the Mendenhall Valley, Alaskan and Proud downtown, and DeHart's at Auke Bay.

The request made her mother cry, realizing the doll was just one of the things lying beneath a charred pile of what used to be the family's house.

The Otnesses' rented home burned to the ground Saturday night after what fire officials think was a boiler malfunction. The fire caused almost $300,000 in damage and destroyed all the family owned, but not everything the family cared about.

"Everything was just gone," said Laura Otness. "But I was just grateful it didn't happen a few hours before, when we were all there. That's really all that matters. Stuff can be replaced eventually; it's the living things that can't."

Otness said she had a funny feeling Saturday evening shortly before she left to run errands, a feeling funny enough to drag her dogs into their kennels outside and her kids, Ian, 12, Tess, 10, and Erik, 8, away from their chores.

"I called my sister at the store (Carpet Connections) and she said, 'You can't ignore that feeling, bring them to the store,' " Otness said. "Two hours later it happened."

Otness had called her landlord that morning to ask him to fix the boiler. Around 6 p.m. he called her on the cell phone to say the house was on fire.

Otness stared at the flames chewing through the baby grand piano she and the kids played around. It ate through the art collection she spent years gathering and made a quick snack of the green chair she rocked and sang her babies to sleep in - the one that smelled like them.

"My kids were really upset about that chair," she said. "It was the one we rocked in and talked in. I told them we'd get a new one. My one son said, 'It's not the same, Mom. That one smelled like us. It had all our baby puke on it.' It doesn't smell like us anymore."

Otness said the fire, not having renter's insurance and losing all the family's possessions are insignificant compared to the possible loss of her kids.

"We're the only family we've got here," she said. "We're just very tight, tight-knit and love each other very much."

Maybe it's this attitude that has inspired so much giving from the Otnesses' neighbors. One such anonymous neighbor left a $100 gift card for the family.

"I made the mistake of asking Laura what she needed and then I thought, 'What a stupid question,' " said a woman who called the Empire anonymously. "She needs everything. I mean I look around just my own kitchen and see the little things you gather over the years and how expensive it all can be and think it must be overwhelming to her."

Otness said her family is grateful.

"People I don't even know are helping us," she said. "But Juneau's always been great like that. I know I gave whenever I saw something in the paper without ever expecting anything back or that I would ever be in this position. But sometimes things happen and you are humbled and pride goes out the window."

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