The furthest thing from Crystal Cooper’s mind was celebrating her birthday on Friday, the day she turned 34 years old.
In her hand she held photos of her daughters, Franklin County fifth-grader Alexis Sloan, and fourth-grader Lilly Sloan, who had perished in a house fire in the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 21.
Tommy and Crystal Cooper, and their eldest son Camron Maxwell, watched from a distance as a moving truck put in place a new modular home on the property at 607 Wilderness Road that three weeks earlier was razed to the ground in minutes by the flames.
“I haven’t been back here since that night,” said Crystal, her husband’s brawny arm holding his wife close. “I haven’t even went down this street since that night.”
As the home was put into place, County Commissioner Jessica Ward stood next to it, either on her cell phone or talking with Sheriff A.J. Smith or electrician Mike Cates.
“Miss Jessica don’t play,” remarked Crystal. “She’s all in it.”
The hands-on work put in by Ward and Smith and scores of other neighbors who had helped raised funds for the Cooper family over the past three weeks had all led to this afternoon, and a new $100,000 replacement home that needed only an electrical hook-up from Duke Energy and the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District to turn on the water, to be ready for the Coopers, and their daughter and three sons, to move in.
“At first I thought I never wanted to come back here but then this is the last place the girls was,” said Crystal. “They grew up here for the past three years. I’m going to see them in every bit of this yard. This is the last place they was; it’s the only thing I got left of them since everything else burnt.”
Crystal’s mother-in-law Sherry Walker offered a touch of hope. “I wish they were here, but it seems like this house was a birthday gift from her daughters,” she said.
Ward’s husband Jim is overseeing a car show set for Saturday morning, Feb. 12, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the parking lot that Emerald Coast Federal Credit Union at 282 U.S. 98 shares with Taylor’s Building Supply.
All cars are welcome – from antiques to sports cars to just plain cool – and 100 percent of the $20 registration fee will go to the Cooper family. Ward said he has created 10 People’s Choice trophies, each with a photo of the two Sloan girls. Questions should be directed to the Wards at (850) 370-0860 or 323-0325.
Smith said both local and out-of-town contributions, from more than 200 donors, had been received by the charity he first set up nearly four years ago in the aftermath of Eastpoint’s Lime Rock Road fires that destroyed three dozen homes but resulted in no injuries.
Since then the fund has gone to help people affected by Hurricane Michael, or in need of a wheelchair ramp or other assistance. He said the monies raised for the Cooper family not only went to buy the modular home off a showroom lot, but to pay off the family’s remaining mortgage on the property.
“It’s been a phenomenal outpouring of love for the Cooper family,” he said. “The fund is continuing to thrive and do things for people who have had a catastrophe. We’re always going to have situations like that.”
Ward and her fellow county commissioners as well as the sheriff are working with the American Red Cross to distribute smoke alarms to those in need of one.
“This house right here will probably have a fire alarm every two feet,” said Crystal. “It will be so different, just because I’m so scared now.”
The family plans to begin counseling sessions on Feb. 21 in Port St. Joe to help work through the grief that has engulfed their lives over the past three weeks.
Crystal said she has heard from people from as far away as India, as well as throughout the United States.
“Morning times are hard, nighttime is the worst,” she said. “It’s incomprehensible.”