CHURCH HILL — Although their home was destroyed by fire early Christmas Eve morning, Santa Claus still managed to find two small Church Hill girls later that day at the Kingsport motel where they and their grandmother had been placed by the Red Cross.
Last month, the Times-News profiled a 54-year-old woman who is raising her two small granddaughters in Church Hill. The article was part of an annual series encouraging contributions for the Times-News Rescue Fund.
She was initially identified with the alias “Emma S.” to protect her privacy as a beneficiary of the program, but maintaining that alias seems pointless now that fire has claimed nearly everything she owns.
After reading last month about the hardships of Etta Sensabaugh and her two granddaughters, ages 2 and 4, many people opened up their hearts and their wallets to try to make Christmas extra special for this family.
The Times-News received calls offering donations specifically for Sensabaugh of cash, children’s clothes and toys. A group of firefighters built her a new porch, and a heating and cooling company was going to install a new heat pump to replace her broken furnace.
But the heat pump hadn’t arrived as of Christmas Eve, and Sensabaugh was still using two ceramic space heaters to keep her trailer warm.
Around 1:10 a.m. Monday an electrical fire erupted in the trailer at 340 Silver Lake Road while the family slept.
Church Hill Fire Chief David Woods said the fire started because the circuits were overloaded by the space heaters.
Sensabaugh’s son, David Johnson, and grandson, David Joe Johnson III, were spending the night when the fire occurred, and it was the grandson who smelled the smoke and got the family out of the burning trailer. The grandson went back in and retrieved a couple of presents, but he couldn’t save much.
By the time Church Hill firefighters arrived on the scene the residence was fully involved with flames and couldn’t be saved.
Sensabaugh lost almost everything including a new puppy and her late husband’s ashes and urn box.
Family members still hope to find the urn box in the debris, but they fear it didn’t survive the fire.
Family members sorted through the debris Wednesday and found a few photos, but nothing else could be salvaged.
Sensabaugh and the girls spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the Days Inn motel on Lynn Garden Drive thanks to the American Red Cross.
In the midst of disaster the family still managed to celebrate Christmas to some extent. Retired Holston Army Ammunition Plant fire chief Bill Killen had planned on playing Santa at the trailer for the girls Christmas Eve. After the fire he and HAAP firefighters Jason Derrick and Mike Yates and their families visited Sensabaugh and the girls at the motel Monday with lots of presents and food.
“It just made my Christmas to see the smile on that youngest little girl’s face when she came through the door and saw Santa Claus — I just melted,” Killen said Wednesday. “There must have been 10 to 15 gifts per child and for Etta. There was lots of clothes, dolls, games, diapers, a bicycle, and lots of food.”
It was one bright moment in an otherwise catastrophic week for Sensabaugh. She was almost inconsolable Wednesday when the Times-News met her at the trailer park manager’s residence.
The trailer park has agreed to let her stay in a vacant mobile home in the park at a discounted rate temporarily, although the exact arrangement wasn’t specified.
Sensabaugh was unable to talk about the fire for more than a few seconds Wednesday without crying.
“They’re going to help me here at the trailer park for a couple of months,” she said. “I’ll start all over.”
Two years ago after her husband died, Sensabaugh lost her house. He had purchased the run-down mobile home for $2,000 before his death, and that’s where she and the girls were living on a rented lot.
Some of the people who made donations specifically to Sensabaugh said what touched them most about her story was her strength and perseverance. She said in the article that she keeps her spirits up because she knows God’s purpose for her — to raise those two little girls.
Sensabaugh suffers from a degenerative spinal condition as well as arthritis.
Living on a fixed income that brings in only $990 a month, only seldom can she afford to buy her medicine.
Her car was on its last leg, and she couldn’t save up money for a down payment on another car, at least until the 2-year-old gets out of diapers — which is one of her greatest expenses.
The electric space heaters ran her electric bill up every month, and she usually found herself calling the electric company to explain why her payment was late.
The 4-year-old had grown out of her clothes, and Sensabaugh was anxious to get her some new clothes at least before she starts kindergarten next year. The clothes that had been donated are now burned.
And as if it couldn’t get any worse, family members said Wednesday Sensabaugh is also a victim of theft and forgery. According to her son, Tony Johnson, an “in-law” visited Sensabaugh’s home Sunday night hours before the fire.
Sensabaugh thought her pocketbook had been burned up in the fire. Tuesday night a relative of the alleged culprit called the family to report that this in-law had stolen the pocketbook Sunday night and was forging checks from it.
Tony Johnson went to the bank Wednesday morning with Sensabaugh to check on the account, and the bank confirmed that checks had been written on the account since the fire took place.
“We’re going to file a police report on it tomorrow (Thursday) because she’s not feeling real well today,” Tony Johnson said. “I’m not sure how much (has been forged), but they detected her (the culprit) while we were at the bank this morning. There’s some kind of detection process at that bank, and they were detecting her this morning out trying to get those checks cashed. After all this she (the culprit) was still at it.”
Although Sensabaugh has a roof over her head for the next couple of months, her mobile home was not insured, and there isn’t yet a plan for her permanent residency.
News of the fire is spreading throughout the community, and a church contacted the Times-News Wednesday about helping her.
As she and the girls move into their new temporary trailer they have almost no furniture and very few belongings.
“I’m in the process right now of trying to get her something permanent,” Tony Johnson said. “It’s just a temporary deal where she’s going to be for a couple of months. They put a bed in there, and there’s a little chest of drawers, but other than that there’s nothing else.”