12/26/10 — Thomas family burned out of home for holidays

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Thomas family burned out of home for holidays

By Gary Popp
Published in News on December 26, 2010 1:50 AM

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Thomas, 5, places an ornament on the Christmas tree while being held up by his father, Staff Sgt. Decota Thomas, in their hotel room on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Six days before Christmas the Thomas family's home in Saulston went up in flames.

The young couple, who have two children, have regained some normalcy to all of their lives through the support of friends in the community they never knew they had.

Decota is a staff sergeant in security forces at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Shereen Thomas is a stay-at-home mom who previously served in the Army.

The couple and their boys Malakai, 5, and Elijah, 6, were spending the weekend before Christmas with Decota's family in Greenville.

The family had plans to go to church in morning until Shereen received an unfortunate phone call around 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

The call came from her sister, Malaika Mussa.

Malaika frantically told her sister that the family's home in Saulston was on fire.

Malaika and her 7-month-old girl live in the same house with her sister's family on Spoonbill Drive in the Heron Creek neighborhood.

Malaika and her baby were home when the fire began. They safely exited the home.

Malaika had woken up and smelled the smoke, but went back to sleep dismissing the smell as the natural musty smell of duct work.

Moments later the smoke alarm pulled her back into consciousness. Maliaka picked up her daughter and bolted out of the home.

On the phone with her sister, Malaika had trouble explaining the scope of the fire.

"I was thinking it was a small fire, that she was making big deal out something small," Shereen said.

Malaika had to stress the importance of the situation to her sister.

"I told them they are going to want to come home now," Malaika.

While waiting for her sister and brother-in-law to arrive, Malaika saw the first of many gestures of support the family would eventually receive over the course of the following days.

"Some of the neighbors were on the street trying to make sure that the babies were out of the house," Malaika said. "They knew children lived here, and they were really concerned that everyone was safe."

Shereen and Decota left the boys with his mother in the middle of the night and left for Goldsboro.

"We could see the smoke coming from the home from the next neighborhood over, Shereen said. "Then we knew."

The fire, which is believed to has started in the garage caused severe damage to nearly half the home. Much of the damage occurred in the attic and roof of the home.

Volunteer firefighters did not reach the home until flames had reached through the roof.

Melted roof shingles had formed long, drooping contortions along the edge of a massive hole in the roof over the garage.

The families belongings were charred, many only faintly recognizable.

Decota biggest concern in the whole ordeal was simple and paternal.

"I just want to make Christmas as best as I can for the boys," Decota said.

Decota and Shereen have had a busy week. The couple, along with help from Malaika, have had to deal with insurance companies, work with a restoration company and handle moving into housing on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

"We have not been able to just chill. Several days, I have been meeting insurance people at eight in the morning and dragging the boys around in the cold."

Decota said any negative effects on the boys from the fire have been countered by their excitement for Christmas.

Fortunately the family has some of their Christmas traditions outside of the home.

"A normal Christmas for us is going to Greenville, so that won't be an adjustment," Decota said.

Along with the family's positive attitude, many of their Christmas gifts survived the incident.

Shereen said that the wrapping paper suffered the majority of the damage.

Decota, Shereen and Malaika are not focusing on the material items that were lost.

Although much of furniture and even irreplaceable items like sentimental items from the boys' infancy, wedding photos and certificates of achievements were lost, the family is staying remarkably positive.

"We are all here, we are all safe and we are all together, Shereen said. "This is what we are remembering."

The family says they have been surprised by the many sources of support they have received from the community.

"The neighbors have been wonderful," Shereen said.

Shereen said that many of the firefighters who responded to the fire went to Sunday service at Saulston United Methodist Church hours after clearing the fire scene.

"The church has given us a lot of support," Shereen said.

Shereen said that within a matter of hours of being notified of the fire, the church collected donations for the family.

Shereen said that people they have never met have offered their help, at times leaving notes that offer support on the front door of their home.

Malaika said that people have offered up baby formula, a car seat and even babysitting services.

A woman from Goldsboro Pediatrics heard about the fire and organized other employees to provide food items, meal coupons and gift cards.

"We have had random people, some from other neighborhoods, show up and ask if we need anything," Shereen said as tears began to swell in her eyes. "There are a lot of good people around that you never knew existed."

Shereen and Malaika are from Malawi, a country in southern Africa. The sisters' family, whom they stay in close contact with, are all in Malawi. Outside of their home on Spoonbill Drive, the girls have no relatives nearby, excluding Decota's family.

The support and empathy that has suddenly arrived from the community, church and Air Force in their time of crisis have special significance to the two women who admit to having had feelings of being isolated from loved ones.

"When a crisis occurs, you see something come out in people," Shereen said.

Decota said that he wanted to thank all of those who offered their help in the past week, especially the squadron.

"The support we have received makes it difficult for us to feel sorry for ourselves," Shereen said.

The family agreed, they lost a lot in the fire, but seeing the goodness come out in the people around them, they have gained even more.