‘I Just Want to Go Home’: West Fairlee Log Home Lost in Fire

  • Cyle Benjamin finds the remains of Duke, his mother's dog, after a house fire in West Fairlee, Vt., on Dec. 28, 2017. His mother, Penny Benjamin, arrived home on the evening of Dec. 27 to find the home engulfed by fire. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Penny Benjamin, left, of West Fairlee, Vt., looks over what is left of her home with her sister Vicki Kinney, of Corinth, Vt., on Dec. 28, 2017. The house was destroyed in a fire. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Penny Benjamin hugs her son Cyle after he had found the body of her dog, Duke on Dec. 28, 2017. Her home was destroyed by fire on Wednesday night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2017

West Fairlee — 2018 was going to be Penny Benjamin’s year. The 54-year-old West Fairlee resident has a brain tumor, but it began shrinking in February after radiation treatments and she was starting to feel herself.

But one of Benjamin’s worst fears became reality on Wednesday night when she returned to her home on rural Bowley Road around 8 p.m. and found it up in flames.

She called 911 but it was too late. The two-story, three-bedroom log cabin she, her ex-husband and their children built by hand was destroyed.

In an interview on Thursday, she broke down thinking about the loss of her belongings and photographs, but perhaps most heartbreaking for her was the loss of her 5-year-old Newfoundland-Labrador mix, Duke.

Earlier in the morning, there was still hope that Duke had made it out alive and had been hiding in nearby woods. Benjamin and her sister Vicki Kinney, along with Benjamin’s son Cyle and his girlfriend, Amber Towle, returned to the property and called out for Duke, but Benjamin’s hopes were soon shattered when Cyle found his remains among the rubble.

“Oh my God,” Benjamin gasped as Cyle told her the grim news. She broke down and embraced her sister.

Benjamin’s cat, Tango, also is believed to have perished in the blaze. Benjamin lived in the home alone.

Wednesday had started out an ordinary day, Benjamin said. Around 5:30 p.m., she returned home to put some extra wood in the wood stove because of the extremely cold temperatures, and set out to watch her granddaughter in nearby Bradford, Vt.

Shortly after 8 p.m., she drove back to her home on the windy road that starts out as Old Post Road and turns into Bowley Road. Just before she descended the hill to her home, which is off the grid, she saw an odd light coming from the area where her log cabin has sat for 26 years.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, there is a fire,’ ” Benjamin recalled as she sat at the kitchen table in her sister’s Corinth home. She drove a few hundred yards to get cellphone service and called the fire department, which responded promptly, she said.

The home was “pretty much a total loss” when she arrived; only two walls were standing, she said.

“It was 100 percent involved when we got there,” West Fairlee Fire Chief Cory Austin said on Thursday. His department was second on the scene, behind Bradford.

Crews from Thetford, Fairlee, Corinth and Piermont also responded, and a tanker shuttle was set up to extinguish the blaze. There are no hydrants.

“You couldn’t save anything,” Austin said.

He believes the wood stove caused the fire.

Benjamin didn’t have insurance on the home.

Benjamin’s positivity was striking as she retold the story of what happened, and spoke of two other major life events she has dealt with over the past several years.

About five years ago, she went to the hospital for a medical emergency and the doctors discovered she had lung cancer. She underwent surgery the day before Thanksgiving, and fortunately she has been in complete remission from lung cancer ever since.

However, Benjamin was knocked down again last November when she noticed she was having extreme migraines and loss of balance. She had been working part-time at a West Lebanon restaurant and had been cleaning homes. She currently is on disability.

A scan showed she had a brain tumor and she underwent intense radiation earlier this year. Duke knew when she wasn’t feeling well and stuck by her side through it, she said. The radiation helped and she is in partial remission, she said.

“I said, ‘Oh good, 2018 is going to be better,’ ” Benjamin said on Thursday. “Everything is looking up. And then I come home last night, and everything is gone.”

Benjamin owns the parcel of land and hopes to rebuild on the same footprint.

“I just want to go home,” she said.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.