Archdeacon: Horsemen, firefighters again play Santa Claus

Sheila Ryder was asleep in a bedroom of her Mason Street home in West Dayton on Nov. 12 when she and her husband Wesley were jarred awake at 4 a.m. by two of their grandkids who were frantic.

“They said, ‘There’s a fire in our room!’” Sheila said. “I was like ‘What?’

“I jumped up and I was thinking it was a little fire, so I said, ‘Let’s get the fire extinguisher and I’ll put it out.’

“When I got to their room, the door was closed, but I felt the heat and could smell the smoke.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is not a small fire!’”

With the fire getting intense, Sheila woke her 34-year-old daughter Latisha, who was asleep in another room, and told her to get out of the house.

As everyone else scrambled outside into the cold, snowy, predawn darkness wearing only what they’d slept in – some wearing only socks, some barefoot – Latisha lagged behind. She couldn’t find her glasses and couldn’t see. Soon she was trapped by the fire and smoke.

Once the others realized what was happening, they began to yell up to Latisha, still without her eyewear, to jump out the window.

“It was a little itty, bitty window and she basically was trying to squeeze herself through it and she got stuck,” Sheila said. “She was scared, and we were too, but we kept yelling, ‘C’mon! C’mon! You can do it. Turn your body. Force yourself through.’”

Meanwhile, at Fire Station 13, just 5 ½ blocks away on W. Third Street, the call came in about the blaze on Mason Street.

“As soon as we hit the door, we were getting updates saying that people were trapped inside,” said District Chief Chris Kinzeler. “When we showed up there was heavy fire blowing out of the roof and out the second floor.

“To be honest, we’ve rolled up on fires of lesser significance and we’ve had dead people inside. It’s the smoke that gets them.”

Luckily, Latisha finally had been able to pull herself through the window and she tumbled onto a porch roof. Although bruised and frightened, she’d been helped to safety, Kinzeler said, by Wesley, who had gotten a ladder.

“I first saw them all, huddled on the porch and I don’t know if any of them had on shoes. It had been that sudden.

“They were lucky to get out. It’s a miracle no one died.

“We were able to put the fire out, but it had done so much damage to the roof and the smoke was everywhere.”

With the fire, smoke and water damage, Sheila said the family lost everything.

Some of the things she most lamented were a photo of her late mother and other “old memorabilia.”

“The only thing they asked us for was if we could find their car keys in the burning debris we’d put in the front yard,” Kinzeler said. “And when we found them, the whole family retreated to their car to get out of the cold.

“They’re a nice family. What really impressed me was how, in their worst hour, they weren’t complaining or upset or asking for a handout. They were just happy to be together and be alive.

“Even though they had nowhere to go and no close relatives to stay with, when we offered them Red Cross services, they kind of belabored it and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’

“I was like, ‘Look, you lost your possessions, your house, everything. In your time of need, take some help. That’s fine.’”

Sheila admits now the loss crushed her.

A 1981 Patterson Co-op grad, she’s been working the past 25 years as a certified nurse’s assistant at Bethany Lutheran Village on Far Hills Avenue. The house was her pride and joy.

Three generations of family, including four young people, ages 8 to 18, called it home.

“I worked hard for that home,” Sheila said. “Five or six years ago my landlord and I worked out an agreement. He lives in another state and was tired of coming back and forth here. He said, ‘If you keep up the payments, you can have it.’

“I did all that and now it was mine.”

And now it was gone, but as she put it:

“I believe in God and I think he’s saying, ‘OK Sheila, you need to start over again.’

“I just think of it like that and move on.”

‘Santa Claus comes in many different shapes and sizes’

On the very same day as the fire – that evening at Dayton Raceway – harness driver Jeremy Smith won five of the 14 races on the card and was well on his way to winning the track driving championship this season, a 69-day meet which ends Thursday.

Smith was first introduced to racing when he was a kid growing up in Washington Court House and would help his grandfather who kept a few Standardbreds at the Fayette County Fairgrounds.

His path to stardom had a bumpy start.

By the time he was a senior at Miami Trace High School, he and his girlfriend, Brandy, had a young son. Now his wife, she had to put her dream of college and becoming a teacher on hold, and he ended up driving a box truck for a Cincinnati company and then making deliveries for Sears.

He initially struggled in racing, winning just four of his first 65 starts over two years. His first payday came with a 2001 victory at the Miami County Fair.

After that early hardship, he’s become one of the region’s best drivers and won the track championship at Dayton in 2018,

But a neck injury from a bad spill at Scioto Downs several years earlier forced him to have surgery and it took him a while to regain his form and live up to the observation his late grandad and others made when he first grabbed hold of the reins:

“Boy, you’ve got lighting in those hands!”

They marveled at how horses responded to him and dug deep down the stretch for him.

He’s 42 now and two months ago here at Dayton, he surpassed 3,000 career wins.

And this week his good times and Sheila’s tough times have dovetailed into a heartfelt Christmas story.

In the process, he and the other Dayton reinsmen have shown, as fellow driver Chris Page put it: “Santa Claus comes in many different shapes and sizes and the whole nine yards.”

At Dayton Raceway, instead of a full-length red suit trimmed in white, he wears racing silks that come in a multiple color schemes and designs. Instead of a sleigh, these Santas ride in a sulky and rather than eight flying reindeer, they’re pulled along by snorting, straining harness horses.

Christmas From the Firehouse

For the past seven years the horsemen at Dayton Raceway, in conjunction with the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association, have partnered with Dayton Firefighters Local 136 in their annual Christmas From the Firehouse drive that collects toys, gift cards and other things for people in need – especially kids – during the holidays.

Eight days ago – in a gala celebration between races – the drivers, trainers, owners and other track people and their kids and grandkids carried toys they had collected to a waiting firetruck. The presents were to be given out on Christmas Eve.

Several of the gifts were to be delivered to Sheila and her family. Many others were brought to the Ronald McDonald House Charities on Valley Street

“The drivers and everybody there at the track are phenomenal,” said John Perry, a Dayton paramedic who is the Special Events Coordinator of Local 136. “What a great group of folks. They’re a big reason we’ve been so successful with this the last few years. This year because of the drivers’ generosity, we have a plethora of toys.”

Over the years, many of the drivers have donated their winnings from that gift-giving day to the cause, as well.

Some 35 years ago, Local 136 started its Christmas From the Firehouse initiative after its members continually saw people devastated by fires and medical misfortune before the holidays.

“I think that’s just the nature of the men and women who get into this profession,” said Perry. “Our people want to help. They see someone having trouble and struggling and they jump in.”

For many years a Dayton Fire Department medical unit was present at every race at the Dayton track.

“If something goes wrong out there on the track, they’re always the first ones there to help us,” Smith said.

And he needed help that day at Scioto Downs when a horse in front of him went down and his horse ran over the sulky. Smith ended up thrown onto the track where he was trampled by five or six horses.

Nine years ago, Page ended up in a track ambulance after a spill at a Maryland track.

Two years before that driver Josh Sutton was in a frightening crash at the now defunct Maywood Park outside of Chicago and was transported to a hospital with a broken clavicle.

Xenia driver Chip Noble suffered a similar injury in a six-horse pile up at Scioto Downs several years ago.

By joining the Christmas From The Firehouse effort, the drivers are helping people who have helped them.

That’s the way it should be Smith said as he stood in the paddock between races the other day:

“We’re very fortunate in what we’re doing. Since we’ve gotten slots, there’s actually money in the horse game, so it’s about giving back. It’s nice to be able to help people, especially kids who could use it.”

Veteran Lebanon driver Kayne Kauffman agreed: “Who doesn’t want to give kids a good Christmas?”

Each of the drivers has his own Christmas memory or expectation.

“It’s my favorite time of the year,” Smith said. “I’ve always loved Christmas.”

Page, who lives in Delaware, said Christmas will be big for he and wife Brianna this year: “Our son (Carter David) just turned two and we’ve been talking about Christmas for three weeks now..”

Today is big with the Kauffmans, as well:

“My wife (Natalie) loves Christmas. It’s one of her favorite holidays and she goes all out.”

Their two daughters are 22 and 16 now.

“The oldest one is getting married in May and she and her fiancé will be home for Christmas dinner,” Kauffman said. “We’ll all be together. It will be a good time.”

Hopes for a ‘normal’ life again

At the hotel, Sheila and the rest of her family are living in two rooms.

“This is the first time anything like this has happened to me and I don’t know how the insurance company works,” she said. “They promised to get us into a new place, but so far nothing. A fire person told me, even though we have insurance, it takes a while to get things sorted out.”

As for the cause of the fire, she said she’s not sure if it was from a candle in the girls’ room or an electrical fire: “We don’t know.”

Kinzeler doesn’t either: “I don’t know what the investigators’ final determination was, but I do know the family was very honest and forthright from the time we rolled up.

“There was some word that there had been a candle upstairs, but we also had some fire on the first floor and usually fire doesn’t burn down. And that first floor fire didn’t match, so maybe there was an electrical abnormality.

“ It was accidental.”

Regardless of the cause, the effect is clear.

The family has spent Thanksgiving and now Christmas out of their home.

Sheila said a local family has adopted them and she is grateful for that.

What she wishes for most though is just for life to be “normal” again

And that would include a normal Christmas, complete with a kitchen that, she said, has more than the microwave and two stove burners she has at the hotel:

“You can’t do no good cooking like that.

“Usually at Christmas we’d gather at our home and talk about what made us laugh that year. All the kids would be there, and you’d have some drinks and we’d be eating my daughter’s cooking. She can really cook.

“She likes frying a turkey and we’d have ham and dressing and deviled eggs, some greens and her famous strawberry banana pudding.”

She knows they won’t have that this year, but as it turns out they have something better:

“We could have got burnt up or died from smoke inhalation. No one was killed or even hurt. We’re still all together. We have that at least.”

And thanks to the horsemen of Dayton Raceway and the Dayton Firefighters union, they will have a little more.

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