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Fire Victims Muster Up Thanks

The Spellmans lost everything in the Old fire -- and had no insurance. But everyone survived, and they vow to rebuild.

November 28, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

In Thanksgivings past, the Spellmans used to sit down to a long table so crammed with fresh-cooked turkey, baked beans and macaroni salad that they could barely find their plates.

On Thursday, four family members sat practically on top of each other inside a donated trailer in Devore, making do with precooked turkey and tubs of stuffing donated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

"I'm thankful for my kids, my life," said 34-year-old Tina Spellman, who was dining with her fiance, Donald Winham, her son, Wyatt Spellman and the couple's daughter, Destiny Winham.

"Other than that, I don't have anything."

Spellman, Winham and the children were just moving in with her parents when their 30-year-old house was destroyed by the Old fire on Oct. 26.

Only the cracked foundation remains, with scraps of linoleum tile peeling up from the concrete. A twisted frame of metal marks where the horse barn once stood. On the ground are charred piles of debris, including children's marbles fused by the flames.

The family had no insurance.

On Thursday, Spellman had intended to set a table up where the dining room once was, but the harsh winds drove the family indoors -- to the 20-foot trailer donated by a relative.

"I would have liked to have had a last Thanksgiving there," Spellman said, looking out the shaking trailer window. "It's not a house to anyone else, but it is a house to me."

In a few days, Spellman said, Winham, 33, is going to rip up the foundation slab with a jackhammer. The Spellmans are keeping only the red bricks from the chimney, which they intend to use in paving a new walkway.

The family hopes to rebuild on a smaller scale, but as yet does not have the money.

For now, Spellman's parents and her 11-year-old daughter are living in the 20-foot trailer. Nearby, Spellman, Winham and the other two children share a smaller trailer that they bought used for $350.

The family is making the best of things. Winham had plucked some red silk tulips and placed them in front of the smaller trailer. They were making use of a donated refrigerator and a toy box.

Winham said he doesn't like the crowded conditions, but he doesn't want to complain. At least the family and the family's pets -- horses, chickens, doves, dogs and cats -- made it out alive, he said.

"We're having [Thanksgiving], that's all that counts," said Winham, as he microwaved mashed potatoes.

The children did not complain about the modified Thanksgiving plans, either. Wyatt ran around the trailer showing off a pumpkin pie that the Sheriff's Department donated. Destiny Winham flipped through a Cinderella storybook.

"Kids are resilient, you know what I'm saying?" said Spellman.

Only occasionally have they shown signs of missing what they lost. When the family returned home for the first time on Oct. 27, Wyatt Spellman asked his mother for the woolly Winnie the Pooh blanket he usually slept with. She pointed to the broken frame of the bed he was carrying in his hands, and a knowing look crossed her son's face.

"I said, 'There's your bed. And where do you think your blanket is?'

"He said, 'Yeah, my blanket is gone, huh?' "

The family's losses were not over with the fire.

On Tuesday, some of the family's heirlooms -- a 100-ounce bar of silver, some silver coins and several $150 belt buckles owned by Spellman's father -- were apparently stolen from tables on the property.

"It makes me sick," Spellman said.

But the family is grateful for generous relatives and strangers who have given them sheets, clothes and food. A family from Texas even took them to Disneyland last weekend. Winham has found some work detailing cars and Spellman hopes to find a job -- any job -- as soon as she can.

But she isn't very optimistic about their future.

"I'm just waiting to be buried by another natural disaster," said Spellman as she looked at the bare slope above the trailers. "When the rains come, all of this is going to fall."

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