New beginnings in Bagdad

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Family rebounds from disaster, stronger than ever

By Scotty McDaniel

Flies soared through the ash, bathing in the scent of moldy debris and decaying food that has been trapped in powerless refrigerators for a month.


"If the smell gets in your clothes, Febreze helps," Susan Payne said as she carefully navigated through the debris of what was once her farmhouse on Beard Road in Bagdad.

The light-heartedness helps her get through the tragedy that occurred last month, when a fire started outside on the front porch and engulfed the more- than-a-century-old house within minutes, destroying seemingly everything.

But everything was not lost in that blaze. With many of the replaceable things in life gone, she holds on tight to the irreplaceable. Her family narrowly escaped the house in time, and the experience has only strengthened their love.

"If we had been three to five minutes later getting out, we wouldn't have made it," she said.

Bagdad Fire Chief Rusty Newton agreed.

"They were lucky to get out of that house," he said. "It was burning pretty well."

Susan said the fire happened somewhere around 11 p.m. on May 15. She and her fiancé, John Weibel, were just going to bed. Susan's daughter, Nicole Payne, John's son, Alex Patterson, and babysitter Amber Spaulding had just come in from sitting out on the front porch. Nicole and Alex's baby, Gabe, was asleep upstairs in his crib.

But within about 10 minutes after coming inside, Nicole Payne said she was walking to the bathroom when she heard a popping noise outside. The smell of smoke followed, and Patterson said he spotted the flames.

"I went and looked out the door, and there it was. The whole porch was up [in flames]," he said.

On the second story above the spreading flames was Nicole Payne's room, with Gabe inside. She said she screamed "fire!" and sprinted up the stairs to get her baby.

"The fire was right by my son," she said. "Ten to fifteen minutes later he would've been gone. It was the scariest thing I've ever had happen in my life."

Everyone dashed from the house, and Patterson said he remembered running and grabbing the garden hose. While stretching it around the house, a quick tug snapped him back off of his feet and told him that the hose wasn't long enough to reach the flames.

"I don't think it would've helped," Nicole Payne said.

Newton said the final report determined the fire as suspicious, and Susan Payne said even though she can't prove it, she believes it was arson.

"Someone tried to destroy our family," she said. "But they didn't win. And our family is closer than ever."

Outside support came almost immediately and has really yet to stop.

Rick Floyd, a volunteer firefighter neighbor, was at the house to help right away. Minutes later the fire department was on the scene.

The American Red Cross showed up before the fire was out, providing the family with a credit card for necessities like food and clothing.

Susan Payne said it's easy to take for granted everyday things like shoes until you don't have them. A neighbor had to give her a pair after the fire.

"We had people bring clothes and shoes. Churches called; blankets were left here for us. The community really reached out," she said.

State Farm Insurance was actively on the case and paid for the family to move into a pair of two-bedroom apartments at Hi Point Apartments in Shelbyville.

Now a month later, Susan said the dangerous situation that could have been the end is now viewed as a new beginning.

They're in the process of planning to rebuild on the property, and every step they take toward rebuilding their lives is done with a new appreciation for what, and who, they have, she said.

That rebirth will be evident Sunday, when Susan and John keep to the plans they made before the fire and exchange their vows in a small ceremony on their Bagdad property beside the farmhouse remains.

"The wedding is all about family, love, and passion for this land and community," she said. "It was our home. It still is our home."

They will plant trees on the land, to grow alongside what they hope will be generations of families.

"We're building back. It's a new beginning, but it's a continuation, too. It has made us stronger," she said.