Taunton family healing following Monterey house fire

Published 12:11 am Friday, January 31, 2014

MONTEREY — When Connie Taunton was 10 years old, she watched her family’s home in Texas burn to the ground.

That sight, seared into her mind, was something she never thought she would have to see again — until last week.

Taunton awoke shortly before 1 a.m. Jan. 22 to find her bedroom in her Sunrise Road house in Monterey filled with smoke.

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“It was the strangest thing; I just sat straight up in bed,” Taunton said. “Our whole bedroom was filled with smoke. I woke my husband up and started trying to find the source, but we couldn’t find any fire.”

Connie and her husband, Ben, eventually traced the fire back to an outdoor electrical outlet on the north side of their house. Ben grabbed a water hose to put out the flames, but the hose was frozen. He then filled a five-gallon bucket and tried pouring water on the fire.

“It wasn’t doing any good at all,” he said.

So Ben ran in the house and grabbed a couple of pairs of pants, a few pictures and other belongings while he still could.

“That was about it,” he said. “By that time, the (Monterey) Volunteer Fire Department had gotten there, and they wouldn’t let us go back in.”

Seeing her family’s home disappear into ashes for a second time was almost too much for Connie.

“I was running around trying to get a signal on my phone. By the time I finally got a signal, I was hyperventilating, so they sent an ambulance.

“When they got there … they put me in the ambulance and gave me some oxygen and kept me hidden from what was going on.”

Ben’s son and Connie’s stepson, Matt Taunton, was one of the first Connie called when the fire started.

Matt, a firefighter with the Vidalia Fire Department, rushed to his parents’ house to help.

“It was a little shocking to have to go fight a fire at the house you grew up in,” Matt said. “It’s been my parents’ house for the last 30 years. There were family heirlooms and pictures of me and my sister when we were little. It was difficult to see all that just burn up.

“But the training I had here in Vidalia, I just had to remember that, and put everything else to the back of my mind and take care of the job at hand. Really, all I was thinking was that I was thanking the Lord for my parents being safe.”

A double roof presented a challenge for firefighters, especially once the fire got under the tin roof.

The house was fully engulfed by the time Matt arrived, but he and Monterey volunteer firefighters managed to minimize the damage to the Tauntons’ carport.

The outpouring of support from the community has been overwhelming, Ben said.

“People have brought clothes, food, firewood; some people have come by with money, just trying to do whatever they could,” he said. “It’s just been a tremendous, tremendous outpouring. People who we didn’t even know were stopping by to help.”

Matt said Monterey folks take care of each other.

“It really makes you feel like your community is home when so many people go out of their way to try and help do something,” he said.

Connie, who is the tourism director for the City of Natchez, said she is grateful for the support from her friends in Natchez and Monterey.

“We’re just so thankful to everyone in the community,” she said. “People have been so great.”

The fire took the Tauntons’ home, their possessions, precious family photographs and heirloom furniture, and they’ll have to start over.

“After 32 years of marriage and working hard, you’re starting over again,” she said. “But at least I can start over again. I am lucky I’m here to be able to do that. I can replace the material things, but I can’t replace the lives that could have been lost.”

Connie said she will try to gather photographs and memories from relatives of her late parents and siblings that were lost in the fire.

“I’ll just have to regather some of those memories through my family and build it back,” she said.

The Tauntons plan to rebuild their house where it burned.

“We talked to our kids and grandkids, and they just wouldn’t hear of building anywhere else,” Ben said. “There’s too many memories there.”

For now, the Tauntons are staying in a barn they recently began renovating to use as a hunting camp. The camp is equipped with a refrigerator, stove and toilet, but didn’t have a shower or bathtub when the fire happened.

“The neighbors showed up the very next day to put that in,” Ben said.
“Everyone’s generosity has just been so great.”

The smoke detectors in the Tauntons’ house did not go off when the smoke filled the house, something Connie says she will not let happen again.

“They say you’re supposed to do it at the first of the year so you remember, and we had just not done it,” she said. “I guess that’s why it didn’t go off.

“So I want everyone to please check your smoke detector batteries. It could save your life.”