The Pettrey family set out to focus on making memories by traveling with their two sons, Landon, 14, and Chase, 12, after their oldest was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer in 2014.
But in a matter of minutes, everything changed. The family sat roadside in DeFuniak Springs on Christmas Day and watched as nearly all of their possessions and sentimental souvenirs melted away in a fire that destroyed their camper trailer.
Landon was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia when he was 7 years old. He is now in remission after 3.5 years of chemotherapy and other forms of treatment, but still suffers many long-term side effects, such as PTSD and anxiety.
His parents, Dustin and Allie Pettrey, spent much of those years in hospitals, unable to share any summer adventures with their kids. Once Landon began to recover, they decided to focus on spending time as a family and bought an RV.
“That was kind of a wake-up call for us to focus more on adventures and making memories rather than just working all of the time,” Dustin Pettrey said. “Our priorities just took a drastic change because we realized that overnight our life completely changed with that diagnosis.”
For the past few years they’ve taken several months to travel around the country. While they always eventually return to their home in Mentor, Ohio, the family spends close to half the year on the road.
Their most recent trip took them through Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
“We were heading to Alabama but didn’t make it there,” Dustin said.
Dustin had a habit of checking his mirrors to make sure everything was going smoothly with the large RV he was towing behind his truck. They were about an hour into the four-hour drive heading straight north on State Road 83 when he noticed a light haze behind him.
Dustin said it almost looked like a mist. He thought maybe he had left a water valve open. He looked forward again to take the vehicles around a curve and when he looked back in the mirror he realized it was smoke.
“So I immediately stopped, turned on my hazards, and right then the car that was traveling behind me pulled up next to me and said ‘Hey, your RV is smoking from the back end,’ ” he said.
Allie Pettrey called 911 about 1 p.m. and immediately pulled their two kids away from the fire. It took crews from the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department, Walton County Fire Rescue and deputies from Walton County Sheriff’s Office about 9 minutes to arrive.
Within that time, Dustin tried anything he could to save the RV. He pulled the truck into a nearby driveway and ran to grab multiple fire extinguishers.
He then started blasting the far back corner of the RV, where the smoke appeared to be coming from. But the fire was already too involved.
“My next instinct was to prevent any further possible injury, and instantly I thought about the propane tanks that these RVs have on them,” Dustin said. “There’s two propane tanks up on the front of the RV. It was the opposite end of the fire, so I ran up there and disconnected both tanks.”
He rolled the propane tanks into a ditch while bystanders helped grab possessions from the RV’s storage on the front end, where the fire had not yet reached.
The flames were too large for anyone to be near the RV after about 9 minutes from Allie's 911 call. She said firefighters and deputies tried to keep her and her family calm as they watched the fire engulf their home away from home.
A family that had stopped on the side of the road also stayed with them. One of the women shared a hug with Landon.
In one video, Landon can be seen crying and saying "We have nothing."
“I could see he was crying and he needed to be hugged,” Allie said. “He was panicked. Every explosion, every pop — it just felt like our hearts were being ripped out of our chests.”
“I just wanted to stop what was happening because my kids were behind me crying and freaking out, and I just couldn’t,” Dustin added. “It was so defeating to not be able to stop that from happening and just watching it take all of our stuff. Fire leaves nothing.”
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By the time first responders extinguished the blaze, barely anything was left but rubble. The fire had torn through the back of the RV that the family used as a living room and kitchen and took all of their kitchen supplies with it.
Some of the front, where the bedroom and bathroom had been, was spared, but the smoke and water damage was extensive
Dustin said the smoke was “so thick and black” that it coated everything. Gone were their blankets, clothes and much more.
“When we travel it becomes our home away from home, so we like to bring things that are comfortable and are part of our home so that we can feel like, even though we’re traveling at the moment, it feels like home,” he said. “We bring some sentimental things with us.”
A guitar and banjo belonging to the children’s grandfather who passed away two years ago were destroyed, along with stuffed bears that were made from his shirts. The family also lost souvenirs they had collected from their trips, their laptops used for work, and four of their bicycles.
“Our kiddos are very sentimental, so they had everything that meant something to them. Their whole entire life with us,” Allie said. “We walked away with the clothes on our backs and our hamster. Pretty much everything else is gone.”
Allie's sister, Jaclin McMurray, launched a Facebook fundraiser to help them recover. The fundraiser has since brought in $5,295, and some people also have helped the family obtain necessities like clothes and a cage for their hamster.
Dustin said a Santa Rosa Beach family took them in for a couple of nights after the fire. Family friends in Ohio also chipped in with their hotel points to get them a place to stay in Fort Walton Beach while they sort out their finances.
The funds raised will be used to replace all of their belongings when they return to Ohio.
“We are so incredibly thankful for the generosity of most of these people that we don’t even know that are donating,” Dustin said. “It’s been incredible. Those funds will be used to restore our life back to some level of normal.”
Although the fire was devastating, Dustin and Allie said they are just thankful that no one was hurt. Their two kids also have been trying to stay positive.
“When our son was diagnosed we thought ‘Our life will never be the same. It’s over. This is terrible,’” Dustin said. “But we got over that. We got past it. We’ve made some great memories since then. So we know that we’ll get on the other side of it and we’ll be OK.”
To contribute to the Facebook fundraiser, visit https://www.facebook.com/donate/430183598660007
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Ohio family's RV destroyed in fire on Christmas in DeFuniak Springs