Perry is rebuilding her life after fire, grateful for her community

Kathleen O’Neill Perry

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Kathleen O’Neill Perry holds a tape measure as she prepares her new home at an apartment in Altamont.

KNOX — Kathleen O’Neill Perry bought her small house on Nash Road in Knox in June 1987. She was in her thirties, divorced, with three of her four children still at home.

Perry said she “didn’t know a soul,” in the small Hilltown community. All that would change, however. She would come to know her neighbors as her friends.

“We all watch out for each other,” she said of her Knox neighbors.

Perry’s community would also eventually rally around her to raise money and support her after the house she had owned for over 30 years burned down in an April fire. Neighbors raised money starting the day of the fire, and held a fundraiser in May with Perry as the guest of honor.

Perry, 73, is thankful for the support. But there are some things she believes most people still don’t understand about her and the trauma she went through when she lost everything.

 

The fire

Perry was sitting in her kitchen shortly after midnight on April 16, looking over bills. It was a cool night, she said, and she heard some sort of crackling. She stepped outside only to find, when she went back inside her house, that half her kitchen was engulfed in flames.

“It happened that quick,” she said.

Perry said she tried to put out the fire with a broom, to no avail. As she considered getting to a fire extinguisher, the flames continued to spread.

She attempted to leave with her dog, a beagle named Liam, but her dog would not follow her all the way to the exit, and she could not even see what was ahead of her.

She returned to her burning house three times to try to get her dog out. Before leaving, she looked up to see what looked like her ceiling fan on fire and about to fall on both of them.

“I got to the door where he could get out and I kept calling him,” she said. “And of course I was probably breathing in the smoke, too.”

At this point, said Perry, she was already in a state of shock. She speculates that her beagle may have run away in fear or gone to his “comfort spot” in the house.

Perry, who in the past had worked in high-stress situations as a medical assistant, had kept bags packed for emergencies, but she didn’t grab them that night. 

“Even if you’re prepared, once you’re in that state, your mind’s kind of going both different ways,” she said.

When Perry did leave her house, she was wearing only a nightgown. It was an unfortunate coincidence; she said that normally she would be wearing at least leggings and slippers with the nightgown for warmth but for some reason that night she did not.

Her esophagus had been burned from inhaling so much smoke that she was flown to the Clark Burn Treatment Center at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse later that morning.

The first responders struggled to find her address, said Perry, because her ZIP code is in Schenectady County, despite her living in Knox. The last thing she remembers from that night is being driven from her house.

Later that morning, crews were going over the remains of her home, which had been completely destroyed. Her car, parked beside the house, was destroyed, too. Her dog was found dead.

“You know, when you see certain see things on TV, they try to keep your suspense,” Perry said. “But I tell you what, in real life, it’s horrible.”

 

The aftermath

Perry remained in the Syracuse hospital for about a week with her daughter Lisa and then went to stay with her in Milton, in Saratoga County, for about six weeks. During that time, she was looking for a place to live, a car, and furniture as well as keeping appointments.

She has since gotten a car and an apartment in Altamont that she is now set on redecorating.

“I almost felt like I didn’t want to be alone,” she said. “Or maybe being alone without my dog.”

One of her next steps, she said, is going back to church. She attends St. Lucy’s-St. Bernadette’s in Altamont, the same parish that began raising money for her the day of the fire.

“My faith really has been restored,” she said, reflecting not only on the fire, but the aid from her community.

She arrived late to the benefit that had been arranged at the Township Tavern, she said, where she first saw her neighbor Sheila Galvin, who wrapped her up in a hug.

If she were younger, Perry may have considered rebuilding her home, but she says she wouldn’t be able to build there. The memories of that night outweigh all the good memories like family gatherings and holidays. She also can’t forget about her dog, Liam.

After the dog she owned before Liam died, Perry said she wouldn’t adopt another. But then she saw a beagle listed for adoption online half-an-hour away. She adopted him about eight years ago, and named him Liam James MacDonald O’Neill Perry, after her grandfather.

Perry keeps Liam’s ashes in a wooden box in her bottom dresser drawer, along with his blanket and collar.

“Even though people mean well, don’t say, ‘You can get another dog,’” said Perry.

She is still going through depression now but is seeing a psychologist, Perry said.

“I think with family and close friends, they want to think you’re OK … ,” she said. “They probably think, ‘Well, she looks OK; she must be OK.’”

Perry encouraged people to reach out if someone they know is going through trauma. But, she added, “That’s wonderful that they’re there for them. But because they’re dressed and look OK, they’re still going through a horrible thing.”

 

cassandro1lewis
Online
Joined: 05/11/2019 - 09:16
wonderful article

The ending is so true it hurts.

“I think with family and close friends, they want to think you’re OK … ,” she said. “They probably think, ‘Well, she looks OK; she must be OK.’”

Perry encouraged people to reach out if someone they know is going through trauma. But, she added, “That’s wonderful that they’re there for them. But because they’re dressed and look OK, they’re still going through a horrible thing.”

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