Holliston house fire triggers kindness, community support

Homeowners express gratitude after losing almost everything

HOLLISTON, Mass. — This year, Bob and Edna Touchette are celebrating their 50th year as Massachusetts foster parents. Sadly, the house where at least 350 children have spent some time over the years burned to the ground Monday; the fire apparently starting just after Bob added logs to the woodstove.

Bob was alerted to the smell of smoke by a solar panel serviceman while the two were in the basement of the Washington Street house. When they exited, Bob realized it was more than just normal exhaust wafting from the chimney.

“When I looked up, I saw smoke coming out the windows and doors,” he said.

As anyone who knows the Touchettes would expect, they were caring for two foster children this week, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. Bob got them out and into the safety of a van, along with the family dog. But his work wasn’t over. Son David, 18, was essentially trapped in his attic bedroom, the smoke too thick to exit down the stairs. His only choice was to get out through a window and onto the roof.

Bob grabbed a ladder and climbed up to find his son.

“But when I got over the top of the roof, David was gone,” Bob said. “I didn’t know whether he fell through or what.”

Fortunately, David hadn’t fallen through - though the roof would, eventually, collapse. The solar panel worker had actually put up a ladder before Bob did to fetch David.

“David started to come down the ladder and the solar panel guy said, ‘jump,’” Edna said. “As David was on the ladder jumping, all of the windows in the back of the house exploded.”

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Miraculously, David wasn’t hurt. In fact, no one was.

“David came out of the house in his pajamas and socks,” Edna said. “The fire department took towels and taped towels on his feet so his feet wouldn’t be cold.”

It was the first of many kind gestures the family would experience over the next several hours, as they watched so much of what they owned succumb to the fast-moving fire. Neighbors brought coffee and food, a local restaurant donated boxes of pizza. David eventually got a pair of sneakers from a neighbor, who apologized the laces were purple.

David didn’t care, Edna said. He was just grateful to have them.

“I don’t know how to thank everybody,” Edna said. “And I’m so afraid of leaving one person out. And I don’t want to leave anybody out.”

Bob and Edna are staying with daughter Lucinda at the moment. But until they can rebuild, they’re looking for a place in Holliston with enough room for David, who commutes to UMass-Dartmouth, and their other son, Anthony, a junior at Holliston High School.

Wherever they end up, whatever they wind up building, it will never replace the house that served all those kids over the years who needed shelter and love for a weekend, a couple of weeks -- sometimes for years and sometimes forever. Bob and Edna wound up adopting eight of the foster children they took in and had four children of their own.

“Bob is one of 16 and I am one of eight,” Edna said. “Our first two [foster] kids, they were 8 and 10 when they came. And the little girl that was 8 moved out when she was 19.”

This Thanksgiving, Bob and Edna are grateful for the miracles, big and small, coming out of Monday’s fire. First, the big one: everyone made it out okay. And a few precious objects survived, such as the stuffed rabbit Bob brought as an Easter gift for Edna while they were dating back in the early 1960s or the Rubik’s Cube, a Christmas gift meant for Bob, lost and long-forgotten, but showing up scattered in the ruins in its original cellophane packaging still waiting to confound someone.

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Edna is mourning the loss of the many family pictures and the many photographs of the foster children who moved on.

“You know how much I loved my pictures,” she said. “So if anybody has any pictures that include my family...”

There was one thing pulled from the blackened pile that Edna was especially thrilled to see: a license plate that belonged to her Dad, who was paralyzed in a lumbering accident when she was just three.

“It was something that I was saving because it meant so much to me,” she said.

The plate was dirty, but it was intact.

A family friend set up a GoFundMe to help the Touchettes get back on their feet. You can donate here.