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Father finds strength in bringing up daughter, memories of lost loved ones

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Usually he drives by the burned house on his commute to work in Columbus, or past it to where he’s living now.

Sometimes Christopher Abbott can’t help stopping at the charred shell of his former home in Nineveh, where a fire killed his wife and two of his children. He stops his car in the middle of County Road 775S for a few minutes, just to pause and remember.

“There’s not a day that I don’t think about it,” Abbott said.

On Nov. 22, Abbott came home after work to find an unexpected nightmare. The duplex where his family of five had lived for nearly two years was engulfed in flames, and an ambulance had taken his wife, Sirena Slusher-Abbott, to a hospital to treat her for severe burns and smoke inhalation.

She had tried repeatedly to get their 5-month-old son John Ryan and 22-month-old daughter Hailey out of the blaze. She wasn’t able to get to the babies, and later died from her injuries.

Police and state fire marshal investigators have told Abbott the fire was an accident, started by a candle burning near where Hailey was playing in the living room, which was also the baby’s bedroom.

“I still feel like I failed them as a husband and a father because I didn’t save them,” he said.

Abbott, 32, also revisits the Mauxferry Road cemetery, where they’re buried, again and again. For a while, he went every day, but now he goes twice a week. He takes fresh flowers nearly every time he goes.

Adjusting to his changed life means praying and praying, and watching to see how the fire’s only survivor, 6-year-old Aley, is coping. During the fire, Aley’s mother had sent her running to a neighbor’s home for help.

Abbott and Aley are in weekly counseling, but their counselor has said it could be years before she can talk about the fire. The state fire marshal’s office has interviewed Aley a few times, but she appears to shut down whenever she’s asked about the fire and won’t speak, Abbott’s mother, Mary Frick, said.

The family can’t see a future past the day-to-day grief yet, but Abbott knows he’s getting there. He’s gone back to work, is learning to be a single parent and has days when he can think of his wife all day long with a smile, he said. He’s thinking about buying a house.

Aley has helped him not withdraw emotionally or stay depressed. He spent weeks not sleeping and not eating, but is healthier and more hopeful now for her sake.

“I have to move forward for her,” Abbott said. “I thank God every day I’ve got her.”

She loved being a mother

Aley talks about her mom and her brother and sister, and cries, asking for her mother. But she keeps her thoughts about the fire to herself. Frick can tell when Aley is thinking about the fire, though, because she gets very quiet, hangs her head and isn’t responsive when she’s asked questions, Frick said.

“She’ll draw a picture of Mommy, Hailey and baby Ryan and she’ll start scribbling over it and say, ‘That’s fire,’” she said. “I honestly hope she doesn’t remember most of it.”

Frick misses the frequent weekend visits when Slusher-Abbott, 27, would bring the grandchildren to play. Frick would put the children in a plastic wading pool in the summer. She often watched Hailey dance in front of mirrors and a glass curio cabinet in Frick’s home, leaving little handprints smeared on the cabinet’s doors. It wasn’t until mid-February that Frick could bear to wipe the glass doors clean.

Little John Ryan was a happy baby, who giggled often. He had a breathing condition similar to asthma, but that didn’t stop his laughter or hinder the family from taking him out with them.

“I would call him my little boyfriend,” Frick said.

Hailey loved to run around the apartment, screaming to be silly, Abbott said. She played a game where an adult would say, “Punch yourself,” and she’d head bump any fist offered. She picked on her little brother, too, grabbing his pacifier out of his mouth, popping it into her own and then staring at him to see his reaction, Abbott said.

Baby Ryan was going to be their last child because of some health issues Slusher-Abbott had, but Abbott had always wanted three children, and with him he finally had a son, he said. The couple met in 2002 when they worked at the same McDonald’s restaurant in Brown County, and married four years ago.

They started dating after he overheard her talking to a restaurant manager about how much she liked him, but thought he’d never be interested in her.

“Try me,” Abbott told her.

They were inseparable after that, talking for hours, he said. She was outgoing and liked to joke, and loved being a mother, he said. She hated to be separated from any of her children, and cried for hours on Aley’s first day of kindergarten in August.

Immediately after the fire, Abbott called his wife’s phone number every day, a habit he hasn’t completely broken. He used to call her daily on his way home from work, and she had texted him the afternoon of the fire and everything was fine.

Unanswered calls to her phone after he left work tipped him off that something was wrong. He was driving toward Nineveh and could see billowing smoke. He tried calling her phone 20 times between U.S. 31 and the house, and she didn’t answer.

He parked near the duplex and dazedly walked up the center of County Road 775S, oblivious to the fire trucks, the sirens still coming and the crowd of onlookers already there.

“All I could see was a ball of fire,” he said.

When he learned his children were inside, he tried to get into the house, but firefighters held him back — and within 15 minutes a sheriff’s deputy was driving him to an Indianapolis hospital, where his wife already was being carried by ambulance.

Slusher-Abbott lost consciousness on the way, and lost blood flow to her brain after three days in the hospital. Abbott stayed with her until 2 a.m. on the third day, but had to leave the room when the doctors took her off life support.

“I couldn’t watch her heart stop. I couldn’t stand by and let her go,” Abbott said.

Doctors told him third-degree burns down her throat and burns in her lungs from breathing scalding air killed her, Abbott said.

“Praying our little girl is OK”

He and his family had lived in the duplex in Nineveh nearly two years, and had worked to make it homey, particularly in the yard, where they’d cleared out brush. Slusher-Abbott had divided the living room in half with furniture to create a bedroom on one side for John Ryan.

Now, Abbott and Aley live with his parents in Nineveh, and they are helping him take care of Aley in ways his wife did in the past. His father, Michael Frick, listens to Aley read her vocabulary words and sits with her while she draws pictures for school.

Abbott helps Aley dress for kindergarten at Indian Creek Elementary School in the morning and puts her to bed at night. In the past, his wife did those things or they did them together. Abbott, who is a welder for Toyota in Columbus, stopped working six or seven days a week, and spends his weekends with his daughter.

He takes Aley and her friends to play in The Commons in Columbus, and to a salon to get her fingernails painted. The last time Abbott took her to the nail salon, Aley wanted him to get his nails done, too — so the nail technician buffed his fingernails to make them shine.

“I’m just hoping and praying our little girl comes out of this OK,” he said. “I honestly don’t know what she saw that night. I won’t ask her what happened. I just don’t feel comfortable asking.”

He knows that his wife got Aley out of the apartment and sent her to a neighbor’s house to ask for help, but he hasn’t asked where Slusher-Abbott was when the fire broke out or questioned his daughter for other details, such as what she saw before her mom sent her out of the house.

The duplex was a total loss, with the belongings of both the Abbotts and the downstairs tenant burned.

The Crossing church in Nineveh, where Abbott and his parents attend, has helped the family by collecting money, clothes and furniture from the community. The money was initially raised to pay for burial and medical expenses, but a burial site was donated and Jessen Funeral Home covered the funeral costs. So, most of the money will be set aside in a special fund for Aley’s education, Pastor Paul Taylor said. The family didn’t have life insurance or renter’s insurance.

Church members also pray and make themselves available to Abbott to listen, give advice when asked or simply be together. Taylor either sees or talks to Abbott everyday. He rode with Abbott to the hospital the day of the fire, and has been there to cry with him, pray with him and listen.

Prior to the fire, Abbott was interested in learning about faith, and his family had started attending The Crossing church in September, Taylor said.

“After the fire, he grabbed hold of it, and he’s not letting go,” he said.

Abbott’s strength in coping with the grief is based on his understanding of God, Taylor said.

“He knows that God is not asleep and God is in on everything. Other people who don’t know God will a lot of times fall apart,” he said.

God is giving Abbott strength, and he’s beginning to discover that with God he can handle anything, even during intense grieving, Taylor said.

“Without God in my life, I wouldn’t have anything,” Abbott said.

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