STRUGGLING: East Side family, who lost virtually everything in a fire, still looking for help
Paula Johnson thought her life was getting better when she began her move out of 308 S. Ray St.
Johnson had moved there in September with seven of her 12 children, ages 23 to 2. Two of her adult children and a grandchild later joined her.
After renting a U-Haul over the weekend, Johnson, 38, had friends and relatives help her move heavy furniture to a new home on Whippo Street.
She noted anything that could be packed into her car, such as clothing, had been stuffed into plastic bags and stacked in the dining room awaiting the move.
Johnson said she thought things were looking up -- until she saw flames rising from the roof of the yellow-sided house Dec. 12.
New Castle firefighters responded at 8:17 p.m. The fire was confined to the first floor at the back of the building. They estimated damage to the house at $15,000.
"But it doesn't take long for a fire to really mess things up," one firefighter said.
No one was home during the blaze.
Returning Dec. 13 morning with her sister, Rita Barnes, Johnson looked over soot-blackened walls, broken glass and her ruined, mostly melted, possessions. Smoke still rose from the clothing on the dining room floor.
"I thought it couldn't get any worse," she said, "but it did."
The sisters, smelling of smoke and dirty with soot from picking through the rubble, had approached the local office of the American Red Cross seeking assistance. They were turned down.
"They said they had to go on what the fire marshal said," Barnes noted. "The fire marshal said there was only smoke and water damage."
State police fire marshal Mark Bair could not be reached for comment Dec. 13.
Johnson said firefighters had trampled on clothing, toys and movies in the dining room. What wasn't melted or soot covered was ruined when the plastic bags they were in melted over them.
Johnson's clothes in an upstairs closet melted on the hangers. A daughter's burgundy prom gown, hung in the same closet, also melted.
Poking through boxes, Johnson was pleased to have discovered the sonogram image of her daughter's first baby, due in February.
"We have this," she said. "But the clothes we got for the baby were downstairs. They're destroyed."
The heat was so hot, Johnson said, the shower curtain melted over the upstairs bathroom. Her plastic television set melted. Plastic bottles removed from the kitchen cupboard and placed on the counter awaiting packing were in melted ruins.
"None of this is usable," she said, picking up a stuffed toy from the floor.
Several boxes upstairs contained Christmas gifts and decorations. Johnson and Barnes looked them over deciding if any could be salvaged.
"It will be tough," Barnes said.
John Stubbs, executive director of the Red Cross' Beaver-Lawrence chapter, and Tom Ford, the agency's Lawrence County emergency services coordinator, said they are still investigating.
"Our hands are tied," Ford said. "We understand from the landlord that the family should have been out of the house days ago."
Stubbs said the agency will refer the Johnsons to other agencies for assistance.
We don't want to leave anyone out in the cold. We're still investigating. We'll do what we're able to do."
Johnson said she is not concerned about "replacing my stuff. I can get more things."
Her concern is to get school clothes for An-Tyne, 15, A-Monnia, 13, Alya-Wan, 12, Asizon, 6, and Asiah, 5.
"All we have really are the clothes on our back ... and what was already in my car."