House fire takes everything but 'we're all still alive,' Manitoba family says
'We just stood outside and watched our house burn to the ground'
A family that stood in their pajamas, coughing smoke from their lungs and watching their house collapse under flames, says there is plenty to be grateful about.
"The blessing of this is that we got all out, alive," said Gerald Harris, surrounded by seven of his family members on Friday morning in Winnipeg.
"We're all alive. We can always rebuild, but we have each other. We're grateful for that."
Gerald and his wife Christina, along with their three daughters and a friend, had just moved into the two-storey home in Oak Bluff, southwest of Winnipeg, four months ago.
They were renting and hoping to eventually buy the house, which had just been colourfully decorated for Christmas and filled with visiting relatives.
Everything — the decorations, the presents, family heirlooms and everyday items — are now darkened rubble, said Gerald.
As well, two cats and a long-haired chihuahua, a registered service dog belonging to Christina's mom, are missing.
"We just stood outside and watched our house burn to the ground," said Christina.
She and Gerald hadn't yet picked up tenant insurance and have no coverage.
"We were planning on doing that in January," lamented Gerald. "We lost everything. We have nothing.
"I even lost my wallet, I have no ID to even go do anything."
Explosion and screaming
The family consoled one other around a board room at Grace Hospital, where Gerald was treated for burns to his right hand, as they recalled the terror of Thursday morning.
Everyone was sleeping when Gerald came back around midnight from washing and filling up the car with gas so Christina could drive their daughters to school in the morning.
He pulled into the attached garage then went inside to settle in. He was fixing himself a snack in the kitchen, close to an hour later, when he noticed smoke in the hallway that connects to the garage.
"I thought, 'Oh my goodness, the washer and dryer are on fire,'" Gerald said.
I heard an explosion and Gerald screamed, 'Christina!' And I heard him screaming the girls' names.- Christina Harris
He turned the door handle and burned his palm just before the door blew open and threw him five feet back into the kitchen, Gerald said as he broke into sobs.
"The garage was on fire and the flames were coming in our mud room and into the entranceway," Christina said, taking over from her distraught husband.
"I heard an explosion and Gerald screamed, 'Christina!' And I heard him screaming the girls' names."
She ran out of the bedroom on the main floor while Gerald ran around yelling to wake everyone up.
"There was so much smoke. All we could do was try to get the girls out," Christina said.
Everyone ran into the backyard and within seconds there was no way to get back inside to find the pets.
"We didn't have time to get anything. It was so fast," said Christina's mother, Linda Krueger, who had just arrived hours earlier, along with her husband and son, from their home near Thunder Bay, Ont.
She had brought family heirlooms to pass along to her grandchildren.
"That kind of stuff you can't replace," she said.
Outside, the family watched flames leap from windows and wrap around the house, spreading from one side to the other. Then things began to collapse in front of them, as fire crews arrived.
If Gerald hadn't been awake when the flames began, it could have been tragic, Christina said.
"We would be . . . I can't even go there."
Kruger is hoping her service dog somehow escaped during the confusion "but so far no one's been able to find her."
In all, there were eight people in the house. RCMP initially said nine but one of the Harris' daughters was away at the time.
The family has been taken in by friends from church, but are split up in different houses.
"Friendly Manitoba is true," Kruger said, referring to the province's licence plate slogan.
"I'm a complete stranger and we went to this house last night and they had a jacket for me and a sweater. It's amazing."
The cause of the fire is still being investigated.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to accept donations for the family and as of noon Friday, had raised about $14,000.
Family describes harrowing escape from fire: