The morning of the fire, the family of eight was cooking breakfast. One of the daughters had just gone to the store to get eggs. Bacon was cooking on the stove top.
A day after the Freeburg house burned down, the pan filled with what was just recognizable as bacon still sat on the blackened stove.
As they walked through the scorched remains of their home, the Neff family picked through soot-covered artifacts from their life that disappeared within minutes Saturday.
Victoria Neff, 18, went through a box of CDs that seemed intact. Katelyn, 15, picked up an old cell phone that had partially melted.
“This is the one that had all my music on it,” she said, tossing it behind her into a charred cardboard box.
Around 1 p.m. Saturday, Dustin Neff was trying to thaw out the house’s frozen pipes at Deerfield Court when he stepped inside to warm up. The insulation beneath the double-wide trailer caught fire within a minute.
Everything is gone. We have nothing left at all.
Dustin Neff, father of Neff family
“I walked away for a moment and the next thing I knew, we had smoke through the house,” he said. “We tried to put it out but we lost the whole house. It happened instantly.”
Dustin and Misty Neff and their four children, Victoria, 18; Katelyn, 15; Austin, 12; and Emma, 8; Misty Neff’s brother, David Burns, and his wife, Kirsty Burns, were staying in the home. The family had returned just two days before from a trip to Brooksfield.
Kirsty and David Burns said all of their belongings were still in suitcases, which were destroyed in the fire.
On Sunday, the older family members sat around the kitchen table at the home of the Deerfield Court’s park managers, Sharon and Gary Lautz. Emma and Austin were at friends’ houses.
Kirsty Burns held up a colorful ‘2009’ keychain.
“This is the only thing we have left to our name,” she said.
The family listed off everything they lost in the fire: wedding rings, christening gowns, Christmas presents, eye glasses. The family’s cat, Ginger, also died in the fire, although they were able to rescue their two dogs and pet bird.
David Burns’ epilepsy medicine was also destroyed, leaving him with a two-day supply.
“Everything is gone. We have nothing left at all,” Dustin Neff said.
The family said American Red Cross gave them money for food, clothes and lodging, but feeding and housing all of them is challenging.
We’re basically living on the streets right now. It’s hard. All we have right now is each other.
Misty Neff, mother of Neff family
Saturday night, all eight of them stayed in a Belleville motel. With limited funds, however, they are trying to find a cheaper place to stay where they can still be together.
“We’re basically living on the streets right now,” Misty Neff said. “It’s hard. All we have right now is each other.”
Dustin Neff said they are grateful for all the people who have reached out to them since the fire.
“The Freeburg fire chief was wonderful when the fire was happening; he was very compassionate and helped us get in contact with people,” he said. “The pastor from St. Paul’s came over and brought us gloves and hats. Our daughter’s friend’s mom fed the kids and brought us clothes.”
Dustin Neff also said park managers Gary and Sharon Lautz have been helping the family a great deal in the aftermath of the fire.
“They have been our rock in our time of need,” he said.
Friends posted on Facebook asking for donations for the family, who has lived in the area for 16 years. People can drop off donations at the park’s office at 58 Deerfield Court in Freeburg or call 618-539-3348 for more information.
The Neffs also set up a GoFundMe page for monetary donations.
The day the Neffs’ home burned down, St. Clair County firefighters responded to four other fires in the metro-east. Three of them were in trailers.
Freeburg Fire Chief Hans Mueller said this time of year, trailer fires are more common because it can be difficult to keep everything working properly due to heating and water problems. Older homes are also more susceptible to these issues.
“We’ve been really busy the past couple weeks; there have been structure fires here and in New Athens and Smithton,” he said. “Make sure your equipment is in good shape and when doing maintenance, be very careful.”
Clothing donation sizes
For those who want to donate clothes, Misty Neff provided the following sizes:
Shirts: Women’s medium, women’s 2X large, men’s X-large
Pants: Women’s 7 and 13, girl’s 14/16, men’s 32/30
Shoes: Women’s size 9, 9 1/2 and 3, men’s size 14