A Nova Scotia family is counting their blessings especially this Thanksgiving, as their community rallies to help them after their harrowing escape from a house fire.
Heather Hepburn and her three children were asleep at around 5 a.m. last Tuesday, when the blaze broke out at their two-storey house in Debert, N.S.
Heather’s husband, who happens to be a volunteer firefighter with the Debert station, was at work at the time.
When the smoke detector went off, Heather was the only one who heard it.
“I started screaming, ‘fire!’ to wake up the kids because of course, they all slept through the fire alarm,” she recalled.
“They tried to go downstairs for a minute and then they came back up because the fire was at the bottom of our stairs. So we were trapped upstairs.”
Heather said she ushered her children — a seven-year-old boy, and two girls aged 14 and 17 — into her son’s room. They closed the door and while she frantically made a 911 call, the family was forced to make a quick life-or-death decision.
“And at that point, the smoke and the heat — the heat scared me the most. When you feel the heat pouring into the room. Just terrifying,” she said.
“I wouldn’t even say two minutes, and I was breaking open the window and telling the kids, ‘We’ve got to jump! We’re going to die or we’ve got to jump.'”
Heather said her 14-year-old daughter Allana was a “hero,” who picked up her younger brother and put him through the window when he was initially too scared to jump.
“When I saw that he was struggling, my mind went immediately like, ‘I could feel this heat. I can’t see two feet in front of me. We’re going out this window now,'” Allana recalled.
“When I first managed to get on the ground, I immediately got out of the way so my sister could get out, and when I managed to get up and get to the road, I did the first thing that came to mind and yelled at the top of my lungs for help to try and wake up the neighbours.”
While the family had discussed their fire escape plans before — since they live with a firefighter — the urgency was something no one expected.
“All the decisions have to be made so fast and the the smoke went from being just barely bearable to 100 per cent unbearable in like a minute. It was insane,” said Heather.
The family estimated it was a 15-foot drop from the window. Heather and her two daughters ended up with compression fractures in their spines, and Allana was transferred to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax where she was fitted with a brace.
Her son was left with “a couple scratches and bruises.”
While the family was still recovering in hospital, the community began to mobilize and rally support. Donations came in — from food to clothes and money.
Bridgeway Academy, a school for students with learning disabilities where Allana attends, also started a Go Fund Me donation page.
Angela Rudderham, the director of development and outreach at the school, called Allana a “kind-hearted student.”
“It’s heartbreaking this fire has added to her obstacles but also a great opportunity to show her people care and with their support she can do hard things,” Rudderham told Global News.
For the Hepburns, the outpouring of support has been a greatly appreciated surprise.
“It’s been amazing. It’s humbling to see how everybody comes together at a time like this, and I should have known it because I know that Nova Scotia has a reputation for that — for coming together when people need it,” said Heather.
Heather said the family lost pretty much everything in the fire.
As well, they had recently started a business breeding their dogs, and had six newborn puppies and three adult Rottweilers in the house. The dogs perished, as did two cats — although the family hopes that one of the cats may have made it out.
While they haven’t received the official cause of the fire yet, it’s believed it started in a heater in the laundry room area.
Heather said the goal is to rebuild the home, although their top priority now is being thankful and treasuring what they have.
“I am so, so lucky and so blessed that my kids are here, and I give thanks for that every day because when it comes right down to it, as much as we loved our animals and as much as we miss them, what matters is that we’re still together,” she said.
“We’re the window club. According to my daughter, she’s deemed us the window club.”