By Don Groves
The Albany Ledger
An Albany couple who came home Nov. 27 to a living room in flames are working to get back into their house.
Michelle Drath said she and her boyfriend Mike Little came home to 105 N. College St. from the hospital just after 9 p.m. to discover their woodstove had caught fire and flames spreading throughout their living room.
Drath said they called for help and were able to put the flames themselves but weren’t aware the fire was still burning in the basement. She said Eric Angle, who lives nearby, came to check on them after hearing about the fire and discovered the fire in the basement. The Albany Community Fire Protection District used a chain saw to cut a hole in the floor to put the fire out completely. She said she also got help from her neighbors.
“They saved the house,” she said. “Albany firemen are awesome.”
Drath said she and Little, who has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, had just left Northwest Medical Center 15 minutes earlier. She said she was grateful Little had been to the hospital in Albany instead of receiving treatment in Kansas City, where he must visit every other week.
“The firemen told us if we had come home 20 minutes later everything would have been gone,” she said. “I told them I guess we came home when we were supposed to then.”
Drath said she and Little have been staying with her son and his wife since the fire. They have no insurance to help with repairing their fire-damaged home but have been cleaning up the house, washing walls and curtains, cleaning the carpets and trying to put their life back in place.
“We have no heat, just space heaters,” she said. “We just come during the day. Mike’s cold all the time since he started his chemo.”
Drath said Little was diagnosed with brain cancer in September after they thought he was having anxiety attacks. She said doctors at first thought he’d had a stroke and performed emergency surgery because he had lost his speech.
During surgery, doctors removed a BB from when he had been shot in the head as a child. She said that’s when doctors discovered the tumor in his brain.
“He went from being totally functional to speaking funny in just a two-week period,” Drath said. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
Living only off of her disability, Drath said “little by little we get by as best we can.”
She said Bikers for Benefits held a fundraiser to help them with gas money for doctors visits prior to the fire. She said they were able to save most of their belongings from the fire and have plenty of food but would like to finish remodeling their kitchen. She said before Little was diagnosed, he had started putting in custom cabinets in the kitchen.
“He was in the middle of remodeling and he couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “He’s been a carpenter since he was 16.”
She said all of their base cabinets have been built, as have some of the drawers, but there are still some unfinished pieces and the kitchen remains a bare, wooden floor.
The couple moved from Liberty Cap, Wash., to Albany about a year ago to be closer to her son and daughter-in-law.
“I think that’s a godsend. I don’t know if I could get through this without our kids,” she said.
The unseasonably warm weather has worked in the couple’s favor since the fire but a drop in temperatures will likely bring more hardship.
“When we moved in a year ago there was furnace in basement but it was rotten,” Drath said. “We put natural gas in for a water heater but it was just too expensive to get a furnace.”
Instead they had been getting by with their woodstove, which they were unable to have certified by an insurance company, she said.
“I love the wood heat but we can’t use the chimney anymore,” Drath said.
Instead they’re relying on space heaters, she said. They’ve moved their bedroom downstairs, out of the smoke-damaged upstairs and has brought in an exhaust fan to help air out the basement.
“We get by,” Drath said. “God wakes us up every morning. You’ve got to be thankful for that.”