Craig couple who perished in Christmas Day fire fondly remembered
December 29, 2011
Craig — Charles Hurtt had a way of coaxing a smile out of other people.
You just couldn't help it, his daughters Jeannetta Baird and Jennifer Boston said. His untiring sense of humor could defuse a conflict, soothe an aching heart, or just make another person laugh.
"He liked to make people smile and feel good," said Baird, 31.
"You couldn't be mad for more than two minutes around my daddy."
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She and Boston, 32, their husbands, and Dean David, a family friend, were swapping stories on a cold Wednesday morning about Hurtt, 54, and his wife, Frances Burkleo, 63, who most everyone knew as "Pops" and "Grandma Gigi."
Remember how she loved to get her nails and hair fixed?
Remember the way he used to playfully flirt with the ladies?
Remember how she loved to dance?
They remember because memories are all that remain today. The house Pops and Grandma Gigi used to live in is now a charred shell.
Yet here in Baird's house, just across the street from where the couple used to live, the friend, in-laws and daughters wait. They almost expect Hurtt to walk through that door, looking for a smoke or a cup of coffee, that infectious smile still on his face.
"This is just not happening," Boston said, recalling her thoughts when she learned Hurtt and Burkleo perished in the fire that destroyed their house on Christmas Day.
The ties to this jarring reality are still tenuous and the shock is still fresh.
"It still feels like we're in the twilight zone," she said.
'Tell me somebody got them out'
The fire's devastation left only clues as to what happened that Christmas morning at Hurtt and Burkleo's home in the 600 block of East Fourth Street.
A Craig/Fire Rescue investigation concluded the blaze probably started on the trailer's enclosed porch and was likely caused by "the installation, construction or proximity of combustibles to a wood-burning stove" located on the porch, Battalion Chief K.C. Hume said previously.
However, Hurtt was careful to keep combustible materials away from the stove, Baird said.
This is what is known: A few minutes shy of 8 a.m., Baird was making preparations for Christmas dinner—"Momma wanted to make chicken Maylay for Christmas," she said — when she looked out her window and noticed a small wisp of white smoke coming from the wood stove.
"And I figured, oh well, dad must be up checking the animals, letting them out,'" she said.
She considered calling them but thought better of it.
"I figured, let him have a cup of coffee on Christmas morning," she said.
About half an hour later, a squad car rushed past the house, sirens wailing.
Then, a call from a neighbor upended the holiday morning.
Hurtt and Burkleo's trailer was on fire.
"I stood there and watched it while I waited for them to find out if my dad and them were in there," Baird said quietly.
She called David, who rushed to the scene.
"And by the time I got over there, I could not believe it," said David, a Craig resident. "The only thing that was going through my mind was, 'Tell me somebody got them out.'"
His worst fear was later sealed into chilling realization.
Hurtt and Burkleo had been inside the trailer, and they didn't make it out.
The Moffat County Coroner's Office concluded Burkleo died of smoke inhalation, while Hurtt died from smoke and soot inhalation, coroner Kirk McKey said Wednesday.
David's eyes turned glossy with tears as he remembered watching the house succumb to the devouring flames.
"I just did not want to believe," he said.
What remains, endures
The later years of the couple's life together weren't always kind.
They moved to Craig from Sacramento, Calif., in 2008.
Hurtt worked odd jobs to make ends meet and constantly sought steady employment. Burkleo suffered from a litany of ailments, as did Hurtt, who battled a degenerative bone disease and arthritis, among other things.
"His full-time job was taking care of momma," Boston said.
But to know who they were, you need to look past the mere list of dates, locations, occupations and even hardships.
Burkleo was a crafter who made key chains and rugs, and wasn't shy about speaking her mind.
"She definitely liked to share her opinion — made it well known," Baird said.
Burkleo loved word puzzle books — "Oh, she loved to cheat on those things," Boston said — and she was crazy about Tinkerbell, a Disney character.
Hurtt played acoustic guitar and the banjo, Baird said, and he was an avid collector of anything John Wayne.
Yet Hurtt and Burkleo left behind a much richer history written in the lives of those they reared and sheltered.
They're survived by 12 children from previous marriages and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Their family extends beyond the bonds of blood and includes people on crooked or difficult paths who turned to Hurtt for help.
"Charles was like a stepfather to me," said Sean Cullinan, 20, who lives two houses away from the remains of Hurtt and Burkleo's home.
"(He) took me in when nobody else would," Cullinan said. "He didn't have much, but what he did have — he would take the shirt off his back and give it to me if I needed it."
A private wake to commemorate Hurtt's life is scheduled for 3 p.m. today at Baird's home, 430 E. Fourth St., No. 25. Family and close friends are welcome to attend.