Published 12:00 am Monday, July 15, 2013
SALISBURY — Within hours of losing their family home to a fire May 12, the Cornelisons gathered under the carport next to the burned-out structure for a cookout.
The blaze may have destroyed the house that Jim and Phyllis Cornelison built 40 years ago, but the family wasn’t going to let it ruin their Mother’s Day celebration as well.
Despite the devastation of watching flames take their St. Peter’s Church Road home, there was no place else the family wanted to be for the holiday. The homeplace regularly hosted as many as 30 people for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other special events.
“I think about watching my children and grandchildren grow up here, and the fun we’ve had here,” Phyllis Cornelison said Sunday afternoon. “I thank the Lord that we do have pictures to remember, and I thank the Lord for what’s been given to us and for saving our lives that day.”
The couple lost everything but the clothes on their back, Phyllis’ purse, the eight-foot cherry dining table, a roll-top desk and — miraculously — family photos tucked away in the basement and two heirloom family Bibles in a closet.
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church at 2570 St. Peter’s Church Road will host a benefit concert by The Chapeleer’s Gospel Group at 7 p.m. Saturday. All proceeds will go to the Cornelison family, and funds raised will be supplemented by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.
The church also held a shower for the couple to replace household goods lost in the fire.
Phyllis, who grew up at St. Peter’s Lutheran, said the family has been overwhelmed by the church’s generosity.
“We have always been a giver, but now we are on the other end and we have to receive,” she said. “It’s hard.”
Shortly after 6 a.m. May 12, a strange noise awoke Jim. It was the sound of the fire alarm.
By the time he got downstairs, Jim could not see from the kitchen into the den, which was filled with thick, black smoke.
“He hollered at me to get the kids out of the house,” Phyllis recalled.
Son Brent Cornelison and his family from Elkin were staying at the house for the Mother’s Day celebration.
Everyone rushed out and watched in horror from the yard as flames engulfed the home within minutes. Son Andy Cornelison, who lives nearby, drove his truck through a field and found the fire raging.
Although Liberty Volunteer Fire Department was already en route, Andy called back to 911.
“I’m telling you, Liberty can’t handle this one alone,” he said. “It’s out of control.”
Ultimately, it took Liberty, Gold Hill, Union and Rockwell Rural fire departments to put out the blaze. Thanks to the quick actions of firefighters, family members said, they were able to save a few personal belongings.
They have donated what remains of the home to the Liberty department to use for training. The family plans to watch the training exercise, and granddaughter Kaley Cornelison, 17, will take video.
Kaley was asleep in the home when her grandfather discovered the fire. She escaped with the rest of the family and has changed her senior project to focus on the need for smoke detectors and fire alarms in every home.
“She lived through this, and she knows how important fire alarms are now,” Phyllis said.
Jim, retired from the furniture industry, and Phyllis, the administrative secretary for Rowan County Parks and Recreation Department, had spent the past six years remodeling the home. Two days before the fire, Jim had just finished painting the upstairs bathroom, which featured a new, walk-in marble shower.
“What we always wanted, we finally had it,” Phyllis said. “Just watching it go up in flames was devastating.”
It was the only childhood home son Andy Cornelison, 36, ever knew.
“After the fire, I remember Dad saying that all they’ve ever worked for was in this home, and in a minute it was gone,” Andy said.
Fire marshals, whom the family praised as professional and compassionate, could not determine a cause of the blaze. It was accidental, and it started in the attic, the final report said.
Within hours of the fire, two friends stopped by and gave Jim and Phyllis the keys to a nearby rental home, where they’ve stayed for free ever since. Neighbors and friends came day after day to help, providing meals and doing an inventory household goods, piece by piece, for insurance purposes.
Daughter Amy Nancy and daughter-in-law Allison Cornelison organized the volunteers and led the clean-up effort.
Jim and Phyllis don’t know yet how much insurance will pay, but they plan to rebuild on the same five-acre lot they bought 40 years ago.
Two parakeets simply named “The Birds” and a beloved cat named “Smokey” did not escape the fire. After Jim recovered their bodies, the family buried the three pets together.
“Smokey always wanted to get The Birds,” Jim said.
Finally, he did.