Cocooning time of year is here, and plenty of people enjoy that. As days grow short and cold, folks are rediscovering the pleasures of cooking massive batches of hearty soups and stews and baked treats, filling the house with delicious smells, getting together around the groaning board with family and friends. They’re cozying up and decorating their homes for the holidays, stoking the woodstove and settling down with a nice thick novel or curling up on the couch for a rewatch marathon of a favorite TV series. Cabin-fever season is still a few blessed months away.
This year, New Paltz resident Maria Savino and her 11-year-old daughter Ava are enjoying their time at home even more than most — because they nearly lost that home a little over a year ago. One October night in 2017, while Savino, a nurse was working at the HealthAlliance Hospital in Kingston, an electrical fire began smoldering inside the wall of her kitchen. Undetected at first, it worked its way up into the attic, where it found a bountiful supply of oxygen and burst into a full conflagration.
Around 11:30 that evening, after Ava had already fallen asleep on the living room couch with her cellphone near to hand, her babysitter, Madelynn Haynes — then a senior at New Paltz High School — spotted smoke coming out of a vent. She quickly roused Ava, led her outside the house, and then went back in again to rescue the family’s two black Labrador retrievers. Marley, the younger dog, who was recuperating from surgery and still had a cone around his head, had to be dragged from his cage. “Thank God for that babysitter,” says Maria. “I’m thankful to be alive, that the dogs are all right.”
By the time she’d received Ava’s panicky phone call and rushed home from the hospital, it was clear that the house on Route 32 North that Maria had bought only three years before would no longer be habitable. The roof was a charred, collapsed ruin, the home’s entire contents soaked by firehoses. “Most of the damage was water damage,” she notes. “They had to pull the roof down.”
The Savinos’ first order of business after the catastrophe was to find a place to rent that would accept their two dogs. They found a temporary home on Ohioville Road, which suited Ava because many of her friends lived on the same schoolbus route. Maria kept returning to the homesite in the weeks following the fire, salvaging what little she could of the family’s belongings. Her photography collection and other memorabilia were her top priorities: “I spent nine days pulling apart negatives and drying them out.”
Fortunately, Maria Savino is a believer in having ample home insurance coverage. “I’ve always had a fear of house fires, since I was about 14, when I saw a friend perish in a house fire on my block,” she recalls. “But I never thought anything like this would happen to me.” The memory of last fall’s disaster still lingers, especially negative associations with the smell of smoke. “I used to love campfires and fireplaces, but now I smell it and get anxiety.”
Still, Savino wasn’t prepared to give up on the home that she had loved. Her insurance policy, plus some additional support raised in a GoFundMe campaign initiated by her hospital co-workers, enabled her to rebuild right on the foundation of the raised ranch, originally constructed in the late 1960s, which remained intact. Through a “friend of a friend who’d had a house fire,” she found an architect with the right experience to reimagine her home on the same footprint. During the months when the debris was being cleared away and the new structure being raised, Maria says, she “would just come and sit here, thinking, ‘I want to go home.’” Sometimes she would bring Marley and Murphy with her. “The dogs were both pretty sad,” she adds.
By August, the rebuilt house was ready to be reoccupied. Savino had it redesigned to have more of an open plan, with cathedral ceilings — “No more attic!” — and easier access to the family room. “I’m always thinking about the exit,” she says. Bedroom windows were reconfigured, their sills brought closer to the floor, so that a trapped individual could escape that way more easily. Where once the Savinos had a pellet stove, there’s now a propane-fueled fireplace insert. No more worrisome charred-wood smell for this family. And as Maria decorates the place for the upcoming Christmas season, she cites another house rule for the future: “No more real trees!”
Hero babysitter Madelynn Haynes continued to work for the Savinos until she graduated high school this past summer and moved out of the area to attend college. She too became hypervigilant following the traumatic experience, Maria reports: “We would come home and everything would be unplugged!”
Meanwhile, Maria, Ava and the dogs all seem thrilled to be back in their own home, even if the interior has been reconfigured and modernized. “On my days off, I just stay home, watch movies, hang out…I’m so excited about being able to look out the window and see the same view,” Maria says. “It’s like I never left.”