Things They Gained in the Fire


One Windermere couple lost almost everything they owned when their home burned down, but starting over gave them a fresh perspective on what’s important. 

On any given Sunday, Randy and Sissy Crain’s Windermere lakefront home is alive with the sounds of their grandchildren playing, dogs barking and adults trying to talk over the cacophony. That’s the day each week when the couple host a family dinner at an enormous table in the breakfast room, which boasts views of Lake Down.

The Crains have enjoyed that view for more than 20 years, but the oversized windows framing it are new. So is the rest of the house, which they built on the site of a tragedy that occurred on June 27, 2005.

On that day, as she prepared to take her then 10-year-old grandson, Brenden, out for ice cream, Sissy heard a loud bang somewhere inside the 4,200-square-foot home, a California contemporary ranch. “It sounded like a door had been slammed really, really hard,” Sissy recalls.

Thinking that an intruder might have made the noise, she and Brenden rushed outside. That’s when they saw thick black smoke curling under the garage door. Admonishing her grandson to stay put, Sissy rushed back into the house to retrieve a precious possession—not important paperwork, valuable jewels or expensive artwork, but her 16-year-old cat, Princess.

Sissy hurried through the house looking for Princess, but the feline was nowhere to be found. With the smoke alarm blaring and smoke filling the house, Sissy was forced to turn back. Princess was waiting patiently for her by the front door. Sissy grabbed the cat and joined her grandson outside as the wail of sirens filled the air.

More than 60 firefighters from area stations reportedly battled the intense blaze, but the home was doomed. The recently installed copper roof acted like a lid on a pot, intensifying the blaze. And it prevented firefighters from punching a hole so they could spray water through the roof.   The cause of the conflagration wasn’t determined, but a natural gas leak was suspected. Sissy says fire officials told her the explosive sound she heard could have been gas igniting. 

The Crains lost nearly everything they owned. For the next two years they lived nearby, staying with friends and in rented homes while they put their lives back together.

Weddings Gifts Perish

Randy, a pool builder and general contractor, had built most of the houses on Jennifer Lane, so named for the couple’s daughter, and he would build a new home for  his wife and himself. It took two years, rebuilding on the same spot where the Crains had enjoyed raising their daughter and two sons, celebrating countless birthdays, holidays and other milestones.

The last milestone the family celebrated before the fire was the marriage of Jennifer to Leslie Coleman that spring. The March wedding took place in the back yard overlooking Lake Down, and the Crains invited the newlyweds to live with them while their own house was being built. The young couple stayed in one of the guestrooms, with their wedding gifts,  furniture and housewares for their new home stored in the Crains’ house. All of those items perished in the fire, the thought of which brings Sissy to tears: “They were just getting started. That was the worst [part of this experience] for me.”

The Crains were able to salvage a few treasured possessions from the fire, including an ornate Venetian glass mirror, which sustained minor damage, and a pair of three-foot-tall bronze Moorish sculptures clad in traditional clothing, once brightly painted but now blackened by the flames. A gallon-sized zipper-lock plastic baggie holds the few family photos, papers and mementoes  that survived, their edges singed and further damaged by the water used to douse the fire.

Sissy, 55, keeps the bag tucked away in a storage box. But in the Crains’ new home, the mirror is displayed in the stairwell and the bronze sculptures now reside in the master suite.

Starting Over

It only takes one step through the hand-carved arched front door to understand why the Crains chose to rebuild on the same site: straight through the living room’s expansive windows is a panoramic vista of the lake. Nearly 400 feet of lakefront and a gently curving shoreline create an unobstructed view across Lake Down, with the towering spire of the Mormon temple on the opposite shore. “I’ve been all over the world, and this is my favorite place,” says Randy, 62.

Completed last November, the two-story, 6,200-square-foot home the couple built was based on Sissy’s design. It’s a modern interpretation of traditional Mediterranean style, with creamy stucco walls and a tile roof. Inside, a contemporary floor plan with wide-open spaces makes the most of the water views and natural light, while the living room’s wooden ceiling and tile floors recall classic Spanish architecture. Randy  was on site whenever the workers were there: “Nobody worked unless I was here,” he says. “I trust everybody, but not by themselves.”

When building their new home, the Crains incorporated features to prevent another loss to fire, putting a sprinkler system in the ceiling and running the natural gas pipes through the foundation instead of the attic, where they had been located in their previous home. They’ve been slow to hang paintings and photos, in part because most of their art collection had been destroyed and partly because Sissy says she spent more than two decades to get her “home to where it was the last time, and I’m in no hurry this time.” An art enthusiast who paints for pleasure, she has hung a blank canvas in the living room, its stark whiteness serving as a reminder that a painting will, someday, hang there. “I call it my clean slate,” she says—a homage to starting over.

Another decorative element missing in the home are curtains, both for the windows and for all of the home’s six showers. The Crains chose to eschew window treatments to make the most of the lake views, and designed each shower so that curtains wouldn’t be necessary. All of the showers, tubs and water closets in the home are extra-wide to accommodate Randy’s girth, he acknowledges with a laugh. He also put an elevator in the home, in part because, he says, “I’m not getting in younger, and I’m not getting any smaller.”     

The second story is also accessible by a cherrywood staircase with risers accented by colorful Mediterranean tiles. Here, Sissy’s art studio overlooks Lake Down through expansive windows that provide plenty of daylight to paint by, and she’s currently working on a painting to replace one lost in the fire. A guestroom, a playroom and two brightly tiled bathrooms, including one whose tile is an exact match to one of their former bathrooms, round out the space upstairs.

Downstairs, the laundry room reveals Sissy’s creativity and sense of humor. Here, at first glance, the cabinetry hardware appears mismatched. A closer look shows that the drawer and door pulls indicate the contents within: a spade-shaped pull for a drawer of gardening tools, for example, and one with a lion’s head on the cabinet that holds Princess’ litter box.

The ground level is also home to a guest suite with its own private lanai, the Crains’ master suite with a luxurious outdoor shower and an indoor shower that could easily accommodate a half-dozen people, as well as Randy’s office/man room decorated with African and Native American art, a living room that looks large enough to hold a pickup basketball game and the kitchen-breakfast nook area that is the home’s center of activity, especially on Sundays.

The tricked-out kitchen features colorful calypso granite counters and a work island topped with tigerwood, whose dark-and-light striped surface matches the large stuffed tiger that one of the grandkids playfully placed on the shelf below. A stainless steel Wolf range commands one wall, and the Crains elevated the dishwasher by a foot—a simple yet savvy alteration that eliminates stooping when loading or unloading dishes. The adjacent pantry is larger than many kids’ bedrooms, with floor-to-ceiling shelves that hold foodstuffs on one side and dishes, platters and serving pieces on the other.

The kitchen overlooks the breakfast nook and its outsized 10-person table. It’s an ideal setup for a family that enjoys its rambunctious weekly gatherings around the table. After losing almost everything, the Crains value that family time more than ever. “I realize now how much more important family is than all that stuff was,” says Sissy.

“It’s an experience I wouldn’t want anyone to go through,” adds Randy, now retired from his business. “But I’m glad I’m back and can sit in this home again; I’d rather be here than all the places I’ve ever been.”