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Loved ones help woman and elderly mom after devastating fire

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News
Darlene Bush surveys the home she shared with her 86-year-old mother, Clara, after it was destroyed by an electrical fire last Monday. Darlene was at work when the fire started and Clara was working in the yard, but the family's dog, a Chihuahua named Baby, was lost in the blaze. A friend of Darlene has started a GoFundMe campaign to help with housing, food, medical and personal needs for Darlene and Clara.

FORT WALTON BEACH — Darlene Bush’s eyes well up with tears a lot these days.

She often cries with heartache after the house that she and her 86-year-old mother, Clara, have called home for 51 years was destroyed in an accidental fire last Monday.

Deepening their grief was the death of their Chihuahua, Baby,” which Clara desperately tried to save from the fire but succumbed to smoke inhalation.

Donate:Gofundme for Clara and Darlene

Darlene, 53, also sobs with gratitude for the love from family, friends and even strangers who are helping the women gradually mend their broken hearts and rebuild their lives.

Her eyes also get wet when she talks about a handful of precious photos she was able to salvage from the ruins of her and her mom’s old house on Dona Avenue.

Darlene Bush (right) poses with her 86-year-old mother, Clara.

“I found some pictures in a drawer,” Darlene said Friday morning during a video call with a reporter. “They’re of my nephews and nieces … ”

She paused, then continued with a cracking voice.

“And of my dad, some of (my parents’) longtime friends, a friend of mine for more than 35 years.”

As she spoke, the treasured pictures, still wet with water from a fire hose, were drying out on a conference table at the office of her employer, Whitworth Builders.

A partially burned tapestry of "The Last Supper" hangs outside the home on Dona Avenue that Darlene Bush and her 86-year-old mother, Clara, shared. The tapestry was among a few items that Bush was able to salvage after an electrical fire last Monday.

The office reeks of smoke from the photos, said Laura Avera, Darlene’s friend and co-worker of four years.

“The smell kind of knocks you down,” she said. “Your eyes tear up.”

Darlene said the fire was started by old, faulty wiring that led to the home’s garbage disposal.

The house east of Beal Parkway and north of Pelham Road, had been in the family for half a century. Darlene said her parents became the original owners when they bought it in 1969. Her father, Chalmers, who everyone called “Jim,” died in 2013.

Darlene Bush examines the damage to her home on Dona Avenue after it was destroyed by an electrical fire last Monday. Bush lived in the house with her 86-year-old mother, Clara.

“After the fire, I’ve been trying to find my dad’s death certificate” among the ruins, Darlene said.

Besides the photos from the drawer, she was able to recover some framed pictures of her parents. One of them, in a silver frame, had remained hanging in the home’s spare room after the fire.

When the blaze started, Darlene was at work and Clara was in the front yard.

“She does yard work every day,” Darlene said. “She blows leaves off her porch. It keeps her young. She’s on the ball.”

Clara Bush poses at Turkery Creek in Niceville.

Since the tragedy, Clara has been staying with Darlene’s sister in the area. Darlene has been staying with friends and in an apartment provided by her employer.

“I’m making do,” Darlene said. “It’s hard, but I’m making it.”

She said a neighbor and a pest-control worker were the first people to see the flames after the fire began. She said the neighbor had to direct her mother away from the house several times as Clara tried to go back inside in hopes of saving Baby.

Ocean City-Wright firefighters extinguished the blaze. Darlene said the home is likely a total loss, and that the insurance company still is trying to find her and her mother a permanent place to live.

When she gets the chance, Darlene continues to search for items that she hopes can be saved from the ruins.

Her mother won’t go back there, though. It’s too painful, Darlene said.

She said she hopes they can eventually have a new home built on their Dona Avenue property.

“More than likely, we’ll rebuild on the same spot,” Darlene said. “We know pretty much everyone there (in the neighborhood). There’s a lot of original owners. They’re like family.”

She also praised the American Red Cross for donating money and providing other help to her and her mother immediately after the fire. And she cried when she talked about the love given to her and her mom from her friend, Laura Avera.

Laura started a GoFundMe campaign last Wednesday to help Darlene and Clara. The campaign page explains that their house and contents are only partially covered by insurance, and that Darlene is a single woman who works to support herself and her mom on a week-to-week basis.

The campaign aims to raise money to help with housing, food, medical and personal needs for Darlene and Clara. As of Friday afternoon, the initiative had received $1,790 toward its $30,000 goal.

“I had to really talk her into it,” Laura said of convincing Darlene to accept the GoFundMe assistance. “She sacrifices so much for other people.”

While weeping with appreciation, Darlene said, “It’s incredible someone wants to help you like that. My mom and I are not ones to ask for help. It’s incredible to have a friend like that who helps.”

While she didn’t know for sure yet where or how she would spend Thanksgiving, Darlene is holding one certainty close to her heart.

“I’m just so more thankful for Mom being alive,” she said.