Video report - Christmas Eve fire story has happy ending thanks to Kingsport church

Jeff Bobo • Feb 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Etta Sensabaugh sits outside her new double-wide trailer Sunday with her granddaughters Abigail Johnson and Cecilia Gentry. A Christmas Eve fire destroyed their mobile home in Church Hill.


BLOUNTVILLE — Etta Sensabaugh has been on an emotional roller coaster ride for the past two months that took her to depths beyond her imagination Christmas Eve when her home burned down at a Church Hill mobile home park.

On Sunday, however, that ride reached heights that the 55-year-old widow raising two small granddaughters could never have dreamed were attainable.

On Sunday Sensabaugh prepared to move into an almost new double-wide mobile home next door to her son in Blountville. The home was purchased with funds raised when parishioners at Christ Fellowship Church in Kingsport passed the hat during two sermons in late December and collected about $10,000.

“I had really lost my faith in God and lost my faith in people because I felt like no one cared anymore,” Sensabaugh said Sunday from her new home. “And then all this happened and all these people came out and helped, and it’s restored my faith in people and in God.”

Sensabaugh was first introduced to the public on Nov. 25 when the Times-News profiled her and her two granddaughters ages 2 and 4 as beneficiaries of the Times-News Rescue Fund. The program provides gifts and food to needy families at Christmas, and every year the Times-News profiles people who benefit from the program in hopes of inspiring others to make contributions.

An alias was used in that initial article to protect Sensabaugh’s privacy. Still, a lot of people were touched by the story of the then 54-year-old widow raising two small granddaughters on a meager fixed income, and living in a dilapidated 34-year-old mobile home in Church Hill with a broken furnace.

Many people from across the region called the Times-News or made other inquiries wanting to make donations specifically to Sensabaugh. One such family was Mike and Deb Salaita of Church Hill who brought Sensabaugh some gifts a few days before Christmas, including two ceramic space heaters.

It was turning out to be one of the best holidays in a long time for Sensabaugh. The girls had received lots of clothes and toys from people in the community, a group of firemen had built her a new porch, and she’d received other gifts.

A group of area firemen had planned on visiting Sensabaugh on Christmas Eve to play Santa Claus and bring gifts for the girls.

As it turned out, firemen would make a visit to the Sensabaugh home earlier than expected — about 1:30 a.m. Christmas Eve morning, to put out flames that destroyed the home.

The cause of the fire was determined to be electrical — overloaded circuits caused by the two ceramic heaters.

Mike Salaita and his father went to visit Sensabaugh with gifts later Christmas Eve and pulled up to find smoldering rubble. He and his wife were devastated to find out the cause of the fire.

That evening prior to a Christmas Eve service at Christ Fellowship Church the Salaitas mentioned what had happened to their pastor, Greg DePriest. DePriest then shared the story with the congregation during the sermon, and they decided to pass the hat to help Sensabaugh.

They raised $4,800 that first night. It inspired them to try it again the following Sunday, and after two days the tally was up to $10,000.

In the meantime, the Salaitas had met a Colonial Heights couple who were selling a 2003 model double-wide mobile home where their late father had resided.

The home is in very good condition, and although it was priced much higher, the couple agreed to lower their price to $9,000 so that the funds donated to the church would cover the purchase, as well as the move, the utility hookup and insurance for the first year.

That was the week of New Year’s Day.

Since then the double-wide has been moved from its previous location in Gate City to Blountville.

Last Tuesday Sensabaugh celebrated her 55th birthday by beginning to move in to her new home, which is beside her son in a mobile home park on Morelock Drive in Blountville.

On Sunday the Salaitas delivered to Sensabaugh a washer and dryer, as well as a kitchen table and chairs which had been donated by church members.

“We were just very blessed to be a part of a good ministry at Christ Fellowship Church with Greg DePriest and a lot of folks in our church who pulled together to provide her a new home,” Mike Salaita said Sunday. “It’s just been a wild set of circumstances that brought this all about. Sometimes bad things happen for a reason, but God’s fingerprints have been on this since the beginning.”

There are still a few minor details with some utility hookups to iron out before Sensabaugh and her granddaughters are ready to move in the residence full time. That will be taken car of this week.

As Sensabaugh sat on the steps of her new home Sunday afternoon talking with the Salaitas she was unable to contain her emotions as she recounted how much her life has changed in the past two months.

“When the trailer burned down we had nothing — nothing at all — and we didn’t know where we were going or what we were going to do,” Sensabaugh said. “When the fire happened I thought we were going to have to stay at a shelter, and I was afraid that if we had to go to the shelter that they would take the kids. I knew the kids would be scared at a shelter, especially if they were taken away from me.”

Sensabaugh added, “There’s so many good people out there, and they do things and nobody ever knows it. I hope everybody at the church knows just how much I appreciate everything that they have done because now I have a home and my kids here have a home, and I know where I’m going to stay at every night.”

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