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Des Allemands home burns down during Isaac aftermath

Jonathan Menard -   Sep 13, 2012

Des Allemands home burns down during Isaac aftermath

After a long day of helping neighbors lay sandbags to prevent their Des Allemands community from flooding last Saturday, Robert Cornwell returned to his motherís house on Folse Street and started dinner.

That decision would have drastic consequences.

"I turned on the stove and walked away to get grease," Cornwell said. "That was a huge mistake."

Minutes later, Cornwell heard the fire alarm go off and rushed into the kitchen where he could see flames draping his cabinets. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and got to work.

"I was able to put out all of the flames in the kitchen. There was still smoke, but all the flames were gone," Cornwell said. "I could still hear the fire eating and crackling, but I couldnít see any flames. I ran outside and I could see smoke and fire coming through the roof."

The home, which was built by Cornwellís parents decades ago, had a vent above the stove that traveled straight to the attic. New building codes require the vent to go through the roof.

"The fire traveled through the vent like a highway and went straight to the attic," Cornwell said. "From that point on there was nothing that could be done."

Cornwell and three other relatives who were in the home all escaped outside where they watched the fire department put out the flames for three hours.

For Cornwell, it was a surreal experience.

"We spent all morning trying to save the community and Saturday morning the water was two and a half inches from coming in my house. Later that day though the water started to drop and we were all elated," he said. "I guess the relief and exhaustion is the reason I made the mistake, but I went from elation to heartbreak so quickly that it was unreal."

For years, Cornwell and his father have helped rebuild homes through Mennonite Disaster Service, which is a volunteer network that responds to disasters throughout the country.

Now, those volunteers will help Cornwell and his family rebuild.

"This was my parentís house and I moved in with my mother because she has Alzheimerís and she needs care," Cornwell said. "I have vowed to get my mother back in her house, because I feel like I let my daddy down by allowing the fire to happen."

While Cornwell will rebuild, he wants to spread the message about kitchenís that vent into the attic. If his parentís home was built in line with new building codes, Cornwell says the fire would not have spread.

"Almost half the people I have talked to have the same set up in their homes," Cornwell said. "It only cost about $100 to fix and it could save lives and property."

Even if Cornwell knew about the problem before hand, he is not sure he would have fixed it.

"I never thought that this could have happened all due to the vent," he said. "Hopefully people will see the pictures of the house and see the problems that it can cause.

"If just one person gets it fixed, I will be happy."

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