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Veteran battling cancer, sister lose everything in house fire

Posted at 11:45 PM, Oct 27, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS — A local veteran who is battling cancer and his sister are without a home after a fire destroyed everything they own Wednesday morning.

The fire spread to a next-door neighbor's house as firefighters battled the flames for three hours before finally containing it.

Even though a gas line was leaking near their home, the family believes it was a space heater that started the fire.

"There is nothing, it's just burned to a crisp," Steven Howard said. "Everything back there is just ash."

All that's left inside Steven and Denise Howard's home of 21 years, is ash and rubble. Sentimental items that can never be replaced are now gone.

"I was able to get my mother's obituary. I lost my locket that was on the dresser and it got burned," Denise Howard-Mitchell said. "I had her ashes in there and her urn. Everything is just gone, just gone, my grandfather's ashes."

"I've already had chemo and I'm doing radiation therapy now," Howard explained.

He said that due to treatment, though, he hasn't been able to work much this year. Expensive medical bills kept piling up and he fell behind on his home insurance payments. Everything they owned perished in the fire and he says none of it is covered by insurance.

"It's just one thing after another," Howard said. "It's devastating."

He said he turned on his space heater that was in the corner of his bedroom around 2 a.m. It was still running when he left the home after 10 a.m., and when he returned shortly after, he saw his house up in flames.

Howard-Mitchell was in the bathroom at the time and credits her furry companion of 17 years, Champ, with saving her life.

"He kicked the door open and I smelled smoke and I started to turn back towards where the smoke was, but the heat was so intense back there and he was pulling at my leg to go the other way. So, I left with him," she explained.

She said because of the heat, she only had time to grab a blanket to wrap around her waist and run out the door.

Despite this tragedy, the Howard's say they're thankful to be alive.

"We might have nothing else, but we got each other," Howard said.

They hope to prevent this from happening to other families and warn as it gets colder to pay close attention to how and where space heaters are stored.

"Don't put things close to it. If possible, don't have one," he said.

The siblings only have the clothes on their backs, and they're asking the community for help. They need clothes and a place to stay with their dog.

Howard-Mitchell wears a size 8.5 to 9 in women's shoes and wears a size 11-12 in women's clothing. Howard wears a size 2x in shirts and a size 38x32 in pants.

Staying warm during the cold, winter months is crucial, but experts say it's one of the leading causes of home fire deaths. They warn to keep flammable materials at least three feet away from heating equipment, such as portable space heaters, furnaces, fireplaces, or wood-burning stoves. And, turn off portable heaters when leaving the room or going to bed, and don't forget to check your smoke detectors.