Pontiac mother struggles to rebuild after devastating fire
Alene Purnell-Hilliard thought she was dreaming one Sunday morning last month when the Pontiac resident’s son woke her up, shouting for their family to flee.
What the 54-year-old found turned out to be a nightmare: the home on fire, fast filling with acrid smoke.
She, her two children and grandson soon escaped, but a pet perished along with every possession. Today, Purnell-Hilliard, who buried her husband less than three weeks before the blaze, is juggling her job as a caregiver and the hunt to find permanent housing and start over — all while recovering from burns. Meanwhile, a daughter who heroically worked to rescue her brother remains hospitalized, fighting for life.
“It’s been challenging, but I just go through it,” the mother said between running errands on a recent afternoon.
As the crisis lingers, Purnell-Hilliard clings to a new hope: a newly launched GoFundMe campaign aiming to raise $10,000 so she and her children can replace their belongings and move forward.
Supporters are working to spread to the word to find strangers who can rally around a family that has lost more than most others can imagine.
“I’m hoping people will come out,” said a cousin, Jovita Corke. “She needs the help right now, because she has nothing.”
The story shifted shortly before 4 a.m. Oct. 28, when Errol “Trey” Purnell III awoke to smoke while resting on the living room couch.
“My main concern was waking everyone up and getting them out of the house,” the 23-year-old said.
Purnell raced throughout the single-story structure to alert his mother and sister Charlene Jackson, 25, who had also been staying there with her 1-year-old son, Micah.
The group ran out together, but the heat and fumes overpowered Purnell as he followed them. He collapsed in a hallway.
“I heard my mother yelling for me, I heard my sister yelling for me,” Purnell said. “I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t move.”
That’s when Jackson, undaunted, sprinted into action, darting back inside to pull her younger sibling to safety, relatives and investigators said.
Without that, “who knows what the circumstances would have been?” said Capt. John Phebus of the Waterford Township Fire Department, which handles Pontiac and battled the blaze authorities believe was accidental and started near a stove.
Despite the danger, “she just could not stand by,” Corke said. “Charlene has always been a mother figure in her own right, long before she had a baby. … She’s like an old soul.”
The daring feat was natural for a pair so inseparable "they're like twins," Purnell-Hilliard said. “They’ve been best friends since they were little children. If you see one, you see the other. She always told me: ‘I could never bear the thought of living without my brother.’ ”
Township fire crews arrived on the scene as the family stood outside, flames still churning and pushing smoke into the night air.
All four were rushed to the hospital.
Micah was treated at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit for serious burns, relatives said. He has since been released but faces a long recovery.
Both his mother and uncle were at Detroit Receiving Hospital.
Purnell suffered burns and problems with his vocal cords related to smoke inhalation. Jackson experienced similar — but more severe — issues and remains in the intensive care unit on a ventilator, relatives said. She also had cornea damage and needs extensive medical care.
The consequence of the rescue weighs on Purnell. “Either we were going to get out together, or die together,” he said. “My sister — she’s always there whenever you need her. She’s quiet, but she’s the rock of the family.”
The duo’s support was critical for their mother as they moved in to assist as her husband, Kalvin, battled cancer this year.
The situation forced Purnell-Hilliard, who has mobility issues due to a car accident years ago, to return working full-time as a caretaker. And during many hospital stays and treatments, the couple could not afford insurance on the home they had rented for about four years.
After her husband’s death, Purnell-Hilliard also relied on their dog, called Puppy, who died two months before turning 3. “That was my solace and my company,” she said.
Now, Purnell-Hilliard grapples with foot burns while shuttling between her clients and visiting Jackson in the hospital, driving in a Toyota Avalon singed in the fire.
She has found temporarily lodging at the Ronald McDonald House in Detroit but is seeking a new home, furniture, clothes, and more replacements.
Accepting small items from the Salvation Army or elsewhere has been difficult after years of self-reliance, but Purnell-Hilliard appreciates what she once took for granted.
Still, the thought of someone helping her return to a life resembling the one she once had sparks tears.
“It would be priceless because we’ve been going through so much,” she said.