GREAT FALLS — All thats left of the only house Spc. Johnny Kelly has ever owned are charred walls and blackened piles of ash, soot and water.
A fire that officials say started in the kitchen of his three-bedroom, two-bath mobile home in Great Falls quickly spread upward into the ceiling, breaking into an attic space before ultimately collapsing the roof. Once the ceiling fell, burning wood smoldered in the living room, den and bedrooms.
Kellys home at 518 Arrowwood Road is gone after crews used 15,000 gallons of water and spent roughly five hours trying to extinguish the blaze.
The 33-year-old single father should have been en route Tuesday to Afghanistan. Now, he has several questions hes eager to get answered.
Whats my next step? How am I going to get it started? Who do I need to talk to get me started?
But theres no question as to what Kelly really desires.
I still do want to go, Kelly said. Yes, I do.
Where could a man whos just lost everything possibly want to go?
Afghanistan, he said. I would love to go to Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Kelly, a soldier with more than 10 years of military experience, waited in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport for his plane to take off.
He and four other soldiers, all of whom got their marching orders a little later than most troops with the Army National Guards 178th Engineer Battalion, were delayed from deploying Tuesday when their flight was cancelled, Kelly said.
But before he could accept the fact that hed have to deploy on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, he got a phone call just after 7 a.m. from Great Falls police.
They said smoke was coming out my house, Kelly said.
Kelly quickly told his sergeant and lieutenant, getting their permission to leave Charlotte and check on the home hes owned since 2004.
But when he returned to Great Falls, he didnt find his house on fire.
It already burned to the ground, he said. It burned down completely.
School supplies he had just bought for his five children three daughters, ages 16, 10 and 7, and two sons, ages 15 and 9 are gone. The games he purchased to help keep his kids busy during the summer are gone.
The firefighters werent able to save anything, Kelly said.
The house, Kelly said, is just a shell.
The roof is gone, Kelly said. Everythings burnt out. It (the fire) totaled everything.
Quick to burn
Around 5 a.m. Tuesday, firefighters with the Great Falls Fire Department responded to the home and found heavy, heavy smoke coming from the sides of the house, said Chief David Galloway.
When crews entered the house, they didnt find flames, Galloway said. Close to 30 seconds later, the fire broke through the roof, weakening the structure and threatening to collapse.
I pulled my team out and we went into a defensive attack, Galloway said. It was probably less than 10 minutes the entire roof collapsed.
The caved-in roof atop the rapidly burning mobile home only complicated attempts to put out the fire, Galloway said.
Mobile homes in general are very rapid burning due to the type of building materials used, he said. The sheetrock and drywall arent thick and the homes themselves are really tight.
Each truss in the house depends on the one beside it to support the weight of the roof and shingles. Once one truss goes, the rest are sure to follow, he said.
Its like a domino effect.
As soon as mobile homes on fire get a little bit of air, its only a matter of time, Galloway said, before they burn completely.
The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, but officials are still investigating, Galloway said Wednesday evening.
Kellys kids were with their grandmother when the house burned. His youngest children havent yet seen the remains of their charred home.
Right now, Im kind of stressed, he said. Im worried about my children.
Theres a lot going on, Kelly said. I was about to leave and now all of a sudden, I cant go. I have to deal with this situation now because its really throwing me back. I had everything set. I was about to leave. I was excited to leave.
But he wont be leaving any time soon.
I really would love to, but I need to make sure my kids will be all right, he said.
Kelly entered the military in 2000, beginning a career in aviation at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter. Eight years later, he got out but said, I really missed it.
He went back in, joining the South Carolina National Guards 1055th Transportation Unit based in Laurens County.
The love for serving his country runs in his blood.
His father, also Johnny Kelly, has been in the military for more than 30 years. His father is exactly where Kelly gets his passion for the military, said his mother, Linda Cult.
When I talked to him, he was like, Mama, I still want to go, Cult said. I was like a lot of stuff happened and you need to take care of your kids and get situated.
To keep her younger grandkids distracted, Cult took them to Myrtle Beach for their annual family vacation a week earlier than scheduled.
I didnt want to tell them about the house, Cult said. I took them out of town with me just to take their minds off of stuff.
Her sons deployment to Afghanistan was never an easy pill to swallow.
I pray everyday, Cult said of her son and husband, who is preparing to deploy to Kuwait next week. I pray for them more than I pray for myself. Thats all I can do.
Her sons house burning a first for the family hasnt been easy either.
Hes just lost everything, she said.
Cult agreed to care for her grandchildren while Kelly was overseas. After the fire, her plans havent changed. The kids will stay with her until Kelly gets things situated.
His mother says Kellys disappointed the games his children loved are gone.
Hes always thinking about something for the kids, his mother said. You can always replace the things. Good thing none of them were there.
Jonathan McFadden 329-4082