On Nov. 11, after a relaxing day at the beach followed by a leisurely lunch in town, Tracy Howe and Peter Kraft pulled into their driveway at 68 Fresh Pond Road in Amagansett at around 3:30 p.m. with two of their children to find “20 foot flames shooting out of the house,” Ms. Howe said.
The family had traveled from Frenchtown, N.J., to enjoy a final weekend before closing their summer house for the season. They were joined by their best friends, John and Victoria Kiely, and their two children. Both families also took along their dogs, Bosley, the Krafts’ yellow Lab, and Henry, the Kielys’ black Lab. The house was purchased by the Krafts in 2008, and Mr. Kiely had recently completed a total remodel of the house.
“It was our son’s birthday,” said Ms. Howe. “We brought out all of his presents and birthday cupcakes for him.” They weren’t planning on cooking that weekend and put the cupcakes on the stovetop to keep them away from the dogs and the kids.
That morning, after the birthday boy opened his presents, the families went to the beach with the dogs and took holiday photos. “We were in such relaxation mode. It’s such a slice of heaven out there,” said Ms. Howe. When they returned to the house in the early afternoon, Ms. Howe and her husband talked about where to leave the dogs. “It was a wet and rainy day. We couldn’t leave them on the porch, it was too cold,” she said. They decided to leave them inside, figuring they would be so tired that they would fall asleep.
After a two-and-a-half-hour lunch, the families came back to the house to find it in flames. “We just freaked out,” said Ms. Howe. “Peter, John, and Victoria went flying out of the car. We all yelled ‘The dogs!’ ” She called 911, and sat with the four children. “I knew the three of them were going to go in that house to get the dogs out. I’m screaming for them not to go into the house, the 911 person was telling me not to let them into the house. They all went up and busted windows. Now we know that was the dumbest thing to do because we were just feeding [the fire] oxygen,” Ms. Howe said.
Her primary concern was their safety. “You always think of the what ifs,” she said. “They’re leaving me here with four kids.” At first, the fire seemed to be contained to the front of the house, she said, but they quickly realized “it was beyond our control at that point. My husband went in and couldn’t stand the smoke.”
“We all thought the dogs must have done something. We couldn’t figure out what could have gone wrong,” said Ms. Howe. She explained how the interior of the house was new, and that they had not cooked earlier that day. “We couldn’t think of anything we’d done to be a fire hazard. The kitchen wall was on fire, and I thought, what if the dogs got on the cook top, which is what happened,” she said.
Ms. Howe said the fire marshal told her one of the knobs on the stove was turned counterclockwise to the “on” position, which started the fire. Apparently, the dogs jumped up to get to the cupcakes and were able to pull down a few, but could not reach the box. In their efforts, the burner was turned on.
The dogs sought refuge in the back bedroom, the one part of the house that did not burn to the ground. “We broke the window where the dogs were, but the smoke was so black that we didn’t know they were in there,” said Ms. Howe. They figured “if the dogs were smart enough to move away from the flames, they had enough room to move away from the heat and the fire. We didn’t think that the smoke had filled the house to the degree that it did. Had they gone downstairs, they would’ve had a much better chance,” she added.
Unfortunately, the dogs were killed by the smoke. “We have some peace of mind that they weren’t burnt,” she said, “It’s so heart wrenching because it’s a stupid, stupid thing that could’ve been avoided. Our dogs are like our family members. We witnessed something with the kids that some people don’t have to do in a lifetime.”
Multiple fire departments helped combat the flames. “They were having problems, and they didn’t have any water for quite some time,” said Ms. Howe. Technical difficulties aside, “It wasn’t going to change the outcome. The fire was so hot, it had already spread through the whole house,” she said. “We were stuck there, with all the fire trucks, and the hoses. We had to sit there for three and a half hours and watch the house burn down.”
Since the fire, there has been an overwhelmingly positive community response, Ms. Howe said, adding that she is grateful to the people and volunteers of East Hampton Town. “I can’t thank them enough for the help they gave us to get through that day — from helping us with our kids to the calming effect they had on us,” she said. “We had an incredible experience with the town during a horrific tragedy in our lives. People should know how lucky they are to live in the town they live in.”
Ms. Howe said the ambulance volunteers sat with their kids for hours and gave them candy and stuffed animals. “The people that were there were so great. Steve [Howarth], the chaplain of the Amagansett Fire Department, took us back to get the collar, it was the warmest group of people we’ve ever met. The fire marshall, he went into one of the upstairs bedrooms and found my wedding ring,” she said. “My daughter received a card from a woman . . . who wanted to check on her and told her how brave she was. It was so thoughtful.”
The fire department brought the families dinner that evening, and staff at the Meeting House restaurant in Amagansett sat them right away and gave them drinks. “We had someone flashing his lights at us after we left the restaurant. A man wanted to know if we were the family who lost our house. He offered his extra home to put us up anytime,” Ms. Howe said.
“We find ourselves talking more about how amazing everyone was to us than the actual event of the fire. The fire marshall called my husband and said, ‘I hope you won’t leave our community. We’d like you to stay,’ ” she said. “The truth is, I don’t think we’d ever leave Amagansett now. We weren’t there year-round, but knowing how great everyone was, all the selfless acts, it was amazing to us,” Ms. Howe said.
Picking up the pieces after losing the dogs and the house has been difficult. “It’s a huge process. We’re just starting. It’s all open wounds. Everything is gone, all my credit cards, work computers, all that nuisance that we’re trying to work through right now,” she said. “We’re so thankful and counting our blessing that no one was hurt. It wasn’t our primary house. . . . We were at least able to go back to a place that was familiar to us. We had clothes and things.”
Her son has been upset and thinks that his cupcakes started the fire. “He’s more nervous about everything. He has a meltdown if I don’t turn lights out when I leave the room; he thinks leaving the lights on is a fire hazard,” she said. When they pull into their driveway in Frenchtown her son tells her, “ ‘Oh good, the house hasn’t burned down.’ ”
She recognizes that it will take time for the whole thing to sink in. “Kids are so resilient,” Ms. Howe said. Her son has requested replacement birthday presents and a new dog.
The dogs were cremated and the families plan to scatter their ashes in the ocean, and plant a tree on the property in their memory when they rebuild. “At the end of the day, we ultimately will come to peace with it. With each day, things are starting to become more normal again.”