Trial by fire

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35 years ago a Lebanon woman tried valiantly to save her children in a house fire; only one survived

By Stephen Lega

Dennis Rice has missed a lot in the last 35 years.
He missed his children’s graduations and weddings. He’s missed the grandchildren they would have had.
Dennis didn’t miss any of those things by choice. Instead, tragically, on March 6, 1979, a house fire at his home in St. Joe killed his wife and four of his five children.
The Enterprise’s account of that fire noted that “Reports indicated the children’s bodies were found huddled together with the baby in her mother’s arms.”
Mary Ann Rice, 30, died alongside her sons Richard Bernard Rice, 6, Kenneth Scott Rice, 5, Dennis Keith Rice, 2, and Gwynn Rice, seven months.
Only, Todd, then 9 years old, survived.
Dennis, now 67 and living in Louisville, never read the news report that appeared days after the fire. He said he doesn’t remember the funerals, either, but he does know that he wants his wife to get the recognition she deserves for her efforts to save all their children.
“It was a remarkable feat of strength and determination to do what she did,” Dennis said.
Dennis and Mary Ann were married in 1969. Dennis had been a firefighter in Louisville before he got into the restaurant business. He later opened a Danby’s Pizza and Poor Boys (a Louisiana-based chain) in Louisville.
Dennis said he, Mary Ann and their children moved into their house in St. Joe about three months before the fire. To run the restaurant, he said he would travel to Louisville one day, spend the night at his parents and return to Lebanon every other day.
The fire happened on one of the nights he was in Louisville.
He remembers getting a call around 2:30 in the morning telling him there had been a fire. When he asked if his family was all right, he said whoever he was talking to put his oldest son, Todd, on the phone. Todd told Dennis that his mother and his siblings had died.
“I remember dropping the phone and walking backwards until I hit a wall,” Dennis said.
Mary Ann’s relatives, who lived nearby, had picked up Todd, and Dennis called someone to get a ride to Marion County.
“I didn’t go to the house that night,” Dennis said. “I just couldn’t.”
Todd was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of his bedroom when his mother woke him up.
Dennis said he’d bought a bunk bed for that bedroom, but he recalled that Todd didn’t like sleeping on it. The fact that he was sleeping on the floor may have been why he survived that night, according to Dennis.
Todd said his mother took all the children to the same room in the back of the house. He said she had to make multiple trips to gather all five children together in the same place.
“She wouldn’t leave any of her kids behind,” Todd said.
While Mary Ann was fighting to open a window, Todd said he was breathing through the carpet. Eventually, the smoke overcame her, his three brothers and sister.
“The smoke was horrible and at that point it was so thick you couldn’t really see,” he said.
Todd made a couple attempts before he was able to get out. Because of the smoke, he could only stand for a few seconds before returning to the floor to breathe cleaner air.
Eventually he opened a window, got out and ran to a neighbor’s house. By that time, flames and smoke had consumed his family’s home.
“You never 100 percent recover from anything like that,” Todd said.
By his own admission, Dennis has been haunted by the fire. He said he had smoke detectors in the home but he hadn’t installed them before the fire.
“If I had put the smoke detectors up, they’d still be alive today,” Dennis said. “That is guilt I still carry with me today.”
Because of that, Dennis filmed a public service announcement for a Louisville television station encouraging people to use smoke detectors. It was a message he continued to emphasize when discussing the fire 35 years later.
Shortly after the fire, Todd returned to school, and he could tell people viewed him differently. He doesn’t think anyone did anything wrong, but he could tell people didn’t see him the same way as other students after what had happened.
He graduated from Marion County High School, took classes at Kentucky Tech and community colleges, and served in the Air Force for a few years. He said he was probably in his early 30s before he was able to cope with what had happened on that night in 1979.
Todd now lives in Republic, Mo., with his wife, Jody. He has two children of his own, and Jody has three kids.
But no matter what happens, neither he nor his father will ever forget that night or what his mother tried to do.
Dennis said Mary Ann could have gotten out at any point during the fire, but instead she fought to save her children.
“It was her extreme bravery with no concern for her own life,” Dennis said.
Todd said people don’t know how they would react in that kind of life-threatening situation unless they are actually in one. He knows that his mother did everything possible to save her family.
“She was a sweet person, very easy-going, a loving mother,” he said, “and she did what she could to try to get all of her kids out of that fire.”