He often drives by the remnants of the burned house on his commute to work at the Toyota plant in Columbus.
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 the Johnson County road for a few minutes, just to pause and remember.
“There’s not a day that I don’t think about it,” Abbott said.
Abbott came home after work Nov. 22 to find a 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 children 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.
Surprise support system
Abbott, 32, had been working in a temporary position as a welder for Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing for three months at the time of the fire but couldn’t immediately continue his responsibilities.
He left work that late-November day to find his life changed, and he did not return to his job until January.
But what was waiting for him on his first day back shocked him: a full-time position and nearly $4,000.
His co-workers had watched the tragedy unfold in the media, and they pitched in to collect clothes and money.
“They’ve just been awesome to me,” he said.
Abbott said he plans to be at Toyota for a long time, and the support his co-workers have shown has connected him to his workplace.
While Nineveh is still home, Abbott said he has found comfort in Columbus.
He takes 6-year-old Aley, the fire’s only survivor, to The Commons so she can scale the Luckey Climber indoor playground. The laughing children help Aley take her mind off what happened, he said.
“The Columbus community is a great one to be in right now,” he said. “They’ve shown me a lot of love and support.”
Moving forward for her
Abbott also regularly visits the Johnson County cemetery, where his wife and children are buried. 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 watching to see how Aley is coping. During the fire, Sirena Slusher-Abbott had sent Aley 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, said Abbott’s mother, Mary Frick.
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.
In March, he bought a house near Nineveh that he and Slusher-Abbott had considered buying several weeks before the fire. The one-story house needs some work, so he is installing drywall and wood flooring. He and Aley have been sharing a bedroom with a bunk bed at his parents’ home, but now his daughter is picking paint colors for her own room. He hopes they’ll move by the end of the summer.
Aley has helped him not withdraw emotionally or stay depressed. He spent weeks not sleeping or eating regularly 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.
“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 the Frick 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, just being silly, Abbott said. She played a game in which 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 Ryan they finally had a son, he said.
The couple met in 2002 when they worked at a McDonald’s restaurant in Brown County and were 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, 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 that 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 the road, 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. Abbott’s father, Michael Frick, listens to his granddaughter read 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 stopped working six or seven days a week and spends weekends with his daughter.
He takes Aley 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 initially was 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 every day. 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.
Before the fire, Abbott was interested in learning about faith, and his family had started attending the 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.
Abbott is 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.
Republic reporter Michelle Sokol contributed to this report.