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Morning fire destroys Stephenson home

Around 7:30 a.m. Saturday, July 3, people in and around Philip were doing their own things. Some were still sleeping, others were still in bed watching TV, some were watching the kids while their spouse got ready for work, some were just getting into town to get some stuff done for the day's farm work.

Gary Stephenson and his brother, Boyd, who was visiting Gary for the July 4th holiday, were getting ready to go to coffee. Then fire struck.

"You know, you never know what you'll be doing or where you'll be when something like this happens," said Mark Foley, Haakon County sheriff deputy and member of the Philip Volunteer Fire Department. "It's not like we're a paid-for fire department."

Stephenson saw the fire in the back part of his garage. He closed the house/garage door, and he and Boyd got out of the building. Neighbor Chuck Allen called 9-1-1 as well as the PVFD. Allen said, "The first trucks were here in just minutes."

Fire Chief Marty Hansen said the alarm from 9-1-1 was for North Wood Avenue. Like most people in small towns, he can drive right up to most anyone's house, but is less familiar with the street names. He related that, in his morning grogginess, he said, "Where's North Wood? Never mind, I see the smoke!" People in and out of Philip could also see the smoke. Many showed up out of concern. Stephenson watched with friends and neighbors as the PVFD tried to save his house.

Most families in rural South Dakota have at least one member who hunts or is otherwise a gun enthusiast. Many of these people do their own reloading. Stephenson is one of those. "We could hear those shells popping when we pulled up back there," said Coddi Gartner who was with one of the first fire trucks to approach the building from the backyard. Ron Williams, who later entered the structure with a self contained breathing apparatus and a fire hose, said, "All I know is it's pretty eerie when stuff is flying past you when you are in there spraying." Hansen, a hunter himself and a professional taxidermist when not acting as the volunteer fire chief, said after the fire, "Did you see all those burst casings? That makes you a little nervous."

Hoses from the trucks were first used as a nearby fire hydrant was being hooked up. The majority of the fire was soon put out, but flames following the interior walls and the rafters could not be reached from the outside. Several firemen went inside to try to stop the fire and save what they could. A hole was chopped into the roof to release heat and help clear the smokey interior for the inside volunteers. When the flames were done, men broke down the ceiling insulation and other materials to make sure the trapped heat would not rekindle flames. But, as one fireman put it, "There's nothing left to save."

Surprises can accompany every fire. A lyre-shaped wooden dresser, along with several wood chairs, were carried out, practically unscathed. The dresser used to belong to Stephenson's grandparents. One fireman found a stuffed angel bear, smokey and singed, which still could play its recorded message of "I lay me down to sleep." Hansen could hear it playing while he was searching the smoke-choked house and had a knot in his stomach until he proved that it was not a child. One fireman said that, with Stephenson's permission, the stuffed bear might become the PVFD's unofficial mascot.

"We'd much rather have a prairie fire than a house fire," said Hansen. "Grass will grow back, this, a person's house and home, won't."

Now clean-up of the remains of the house and garage must begin. For Stephenson, life goes on. He and his brother attended the Milesville Fourth of July celebration Sunday evening.