Jeff and Joyce O'Connor were enjoying a relaxing, peaceful Christmas Eve meal with some family at home when their 7-year-old daughter, Madison, came into the room and said, "Mommy, why is the laundry room steaming?"
Everything changed for the Giles Avenue family in that moment, which was shortly after 7 p.m., as Joyce upon quick investigation realized a serious fire had begun in the garage adjacent to the laundry room.
Grateful O'Connor family: Jeff, Joyce and Madison at fire station
Within an instant, a neighbour who had spotted the fire—the garage door had buckled from the heat and flames were shooting out underneath—was pounding on their door yelling, "Fire!", and soon the family was outside with nothing but the clothes on their back.
Minutes later, multiple fire crews had arrived and worked to quickly extinguish the fire but the damage was significant and the O'Connor family and their dog Callie now found themselves displaced from their home on, of all nights, Christmas Eve.
Madison and Sparky at fire station
What touched the O'Connors that night and in the period since then has been the outpouring of support from neighbours, family—and those firefighters. The swift reaction of firefighters on Christmas Eve (five apparatus and 15 personnel) not only saved the house from burning down, but also Christmas.
Indeed, the firefighters retrieved all the presents that night and brought them out to the family to have on Christmas morning at Jeff's parents, who live nearby and have been a rock for Jeff and Joyce and their granddaughter Madison (aka "Maddie").
"What the firefighters did that night, we just have such gratitude for," Jeff tells PTBOCanada. "They took time away from their families on Christmas Eve to salvage Christmas for us. Basically, they saved Christmas for our daughter. They had the mindset to go find the presents and save them. It was a beautiful thing."
It was also their neighbours who were heroes for them that night.
Like the one neighbour who literally banged the door down after calling 911 to warn them, the neighbour who invited the family in during the fire and kept them warm while they waited for Jeff's parents to come and collect them, the neighbour who gave Jeff a winter jacket as he was standing out on the street, in shock, surveying his house on fire. And it was Christmas Day when other neighbours arrived with two full boxes of clothes for Maddie, including snowpants and boots.
But the story gets even better: On Boxing Day, Peterborough Fire Services contacted the O'Connor family and arranged a time for them to come down for a tour of their headquarters on Sherbrooke Street on the following Saturday.
They gave Maddie an award during her tour day (see pictures throughout this post) for being so brave, for bringing attention to the fact something wasn't right that night to her parents in those crucial moments where seconds can make a difference. She got to meet them, learn about the fire services, and hug the mascot Sparky. And Maddie lost a bike in the fire that night that was in the garage. So the firefighters presented her with a brand new one as a present.
Jeff, who broke down several times during the tour seeing the firefighters again who were there that night, says the kindness of those firefighters and others was something they will never forget. "No words can truly express what our friends, neighbours, family and fire crew did for us," Jeff tells PTBOCanada. "They have made a pretty horrible situation tolerable."
There are, of course, a lot of What Ifs about that night as one can imagine. Like, what if Maddie hadn't spotted that "steam" from the laundry room? And what if the neighbour hadn't banged on the door in time? And what if the fire had started late at night when the family was asleep, instead of, at 7 p.m. when they were sitting down to dinner?
For now, the O'Connor family is just grateful to be alive. And they will be grateful when their house is fixed and ready to live in again—and it will be many months—so they can really begin to piece their life back together.
But most of all, they will never forget this Christmas Eve of 2017 and the kindness and empathy of a community that touched them in ways they are really only still digesting.