Kim Walsh felt like she was just getting back on her feet before a fire burst through her home a week ago and turned everything upside down again.
Still grappling with the loss of her sister, Margaret Peggy Simonson, to breast cancer three years earlier, Walsh's doctors told her Nov. 15 – the anniversary of her sister's death – she had beaten breast cancer herself. She had been cancer-free for a year.
In October, her brothers and nephews finished renovations on her Hurley Street home in the Parsons section of Wilkes-Barre. She had purchased the house with her parents' help in 2005 and had been fixing it up bit by bit since.
After recovering from her cancer treatments, Walsh was excited to be home again.
I was just getting back on my feet, she said. I was on top of the world. I was the happiest woman on Hurley Street.
Now only a charred shell of Walsh's home at 33 Hurley St. remains, and that needs to be torn down by the fire department at her expense.
Aside from a gold ring and a few charred family photographs, Walsh lost everything in the fire, down to the presents she had just wrapped for her four grandchildren. She did not have fire insurance.
She barely escaped with her life.
Walsh said she awoke around 6 a.m. last Friday on a couch in her front parlor and noticed her home was abnormally hot. She didn't see smoke or flames right away. She had smoke alarms but doesn't remember hearing them, saying the house seemed eerily calm.
As she walked to the kitchen and looked back into the parlor Walsh first noticed a smoky haze in the home.
It looked really spooky, she said.
Walsh decided to go onto the home's back porch to escape the heat. It was then, as she opened the back door and allowed oxygen into the home, that the building erupted in flames.
When I opened the door then I looked, Walsh said. That's when I saw the smoke starting to roll with the flames.
As she stumbled down the five steps to her back porch, Walsh heard three loud bangs, one after another, and felt a rush of air behind her. The home's windows and the skylights above her lofted bed had blown out.
Everything went black as Walsh collapsed on the porch.
Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney said Walsh was conscious but hysterical when firefighters arrived at the house, though Walsh doesn't remember watching her home disappear in a ball of flames.
Fire was coming from every single window of her house and the roof, Delaney said. She is extremely lucky to have gotten out.
The next thing Walsh remembers is awakening at Lehigh Valley Hospital near Allentown on Sunday. She spent three days in critical condition, with a tube inserted in her throat to keep her airway clear.
Her throat had been burned and was swollen from breathing superheated air. Doctors told family members at the time that she might not wake up, she said.
Walsh did awaken, though she now speaks in a raspy whisper from the damage the heat and smoke did to her throat. She was released from the hospital on Monday.
She was the only occupant of her home save for her dog Sparky, who escaped unharmed.
City firefighters told Walsh on Wednesday the fire that gutted her home was electrical in nature, with an electric space heater the likely culprit. Walsh is staying with her sister, Karen Skiba, in the Hudson Section of Plains Township, and said the American Red Cross, the Commission on Economic Opportunity and the Salvation Army have helped her with vouchers for food and clothing. Other relatives are watching Sparky.
Walsh said her family has been supportive of her, but she doesn't like being a burden to anybody.
She plans to rebuild on Hurley Street, though it will be a financial challenge. Walsh works part time for P-J's Window Cleaning, Plains Township.
Her family members said they are turning to the community for help.
She definitely has emotional support, Walsh's niece, Amy Spinelli, said. She needs help financially. That's where we need the community support.
Family members have set up a relief fund to aid Walsh and are planning a benefit fundraiser, tentatively for January. Spinelli said she hopes her neighbors will aid a woman who doesn't realize how hard she's had it.
She's more than just a fire victim, Spinelli said. Her story is really an inspiration to a lot of people, whether you're a fire victim or a breast cancer survivor or just a single woman who's trying to make it on her own. I can give a million and one examples of why she should be helped.
HOW TO HELP
Family members have started a relief fund to aid Wilkes-Barre fire victim Kim Walsh. Donations may be mailed to: Walsh Family Fund, c/o Cross Valley Federal Credit Union, PO Box 597, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18702.