It’s an unconventional Christmas tree.
The silver branches hold ornaments that highlight trips to Las Vegas, the Bahamas and the Alamo along with a tennis racket, a pool table and beer mug.
Others also hang from the skinny tree that neatly sits between two sliding glass doors that offer a picturesque view of a pond. But it’s the bright red glass fire truck adorned with a Santa hat dangling from a low branch to the left that stands out on the shimmering tree.
The tree’s decorator and owner, Samantha Paggeot, said she couldn’t resist buying the ornament because her previous Christmas trees were of a traditional fashion – full and round with long green limbs that hung heavy with traditional ornaments and dressing.
“It has been a nontraditional year, so I have a nontraditional tree,” the Horry County native said earlier this month as she gazed at the decorations. “It seemed like it would be OK for me to get a fire truck and it would be OK for this year. At some point you have to take things less serious. It becomes part of who you are and you realize you are OK.”
Paggeot’s voice softened at the end of her sentence, but it’s not the nontraditional Christmas tree that gives her pause. Instead, her perspective is colored by the thoughts and memories of losing all her belongings in a March wildfire that also destroyed 27 other buildings in her Windsor Green neighborhood in Carolina Forest.
On Friday, the keys to their rebuilt homes inside the 28 buildings destroyed by the March 16 fire were released by A&I to the homeowners association, said Cheryl Todd with A&I, which rebuilt the structures.
Benchmark Properties, which manages the community, began allowing residents to pick up their keys and start the process of returning to the spot where their lives stopped that spring Saturday afternoon. Officials with the homeowners association could not be reached and did not return calls for comment.
But Paggeot along with her husband, Patrick, won’t be returning to their top floor condominium on Pond Shoals Court. Instead, she said they plan to stay in the one across the street where they moved after the blaze and sell their newly rebuilt unit.
The couple moved there in July 1999 as one of the first original owners in the building of four units. They had recently begun their life as husband and wife after meeting while attending Coker College.
“This is not what my former view used to be. We had trees. It was different. And I know there was a reason they had to take the trees down, but it seems so different,” she said standing on the newly constructed balcony where her former home once stood.
“I would have been OK with not coming back. It was not my first choice. [Patrick] said that this was home and he said what he had here was comforting,” Samantha Paggeot said. “It has been a humbling experience – to get help from people is hard to do when you are a helper. This community has been unbelievable. People wanting to help that didn’t even know us.”
The brush fire spread quickly March 16, fueled by windy conditions, and displaced 190 people living in 24 buildings at Windsor Green I and two at Windsor Green II. No residents were injured in the fast-moving blaze, but 80 pets were lost in the fire.
‘The place was gone’
Dozens of fundraisers were held throughout the community for residents to help fire victims. The Red Cross also gave the displaced residents assistance, but an exact amount of the resources distributed was not available, said Nanci Conley, executive director with the Coastal South Carolina chapter.
Seeing the community and people she didn’t know donate for the fire victims was awe-inspiring, Paggeot said.
“Everything we have needed emotionally and physically . . . there has not been one thing we needed that we haven’t received,” she said. “It’s not things people have to do, it is things people want to do. We haven’t gone without.”
The day of the fire remains vivid for Paggeot, who also survived a house fire as a second grader when her parent’s home was destroyed.
“I remember it, mostly my mom and dad’s reaction. They hated that we went through it,” Paggeot said. “Anyway you look at it, it’s a different experience. I couldn’t image going through it with two kids and one on the way like my parents did.”
On the day of the Windsor Green blaze in March, Paggeot said she had been recovering from an illness and decided to go out for a couple hours to get out of the house. She and her husband were eating at Nacho Hippo at The Market Common when she received a text message from a friend living in Walkers Woods asking about a brush fire near her neighborhood. So, she texted her neighbor living below them to ask if there was a fire near their building.
“She messaged me back and said ‘the place was gone,’” Paggeot said. “It was a beautiful day. We came back and, of course, we couldn’t get in.”
The couple, who were in Patrick Paggeot’s vehicle, parked along Postal Way and he walked to a checkpoint where emergency officials had stopped the public for safety reasons.
“It was a total loss,” she said relaying what her husband told her when he walked back to their vehicle.
Samantha Paggeot’s car, a Pontiac was parked in front of their home.
Earlier this month, walking back to her new home, she pointed to a white car and said “it was melted, but they repaired it and the smoke smell is completely gone. Or else, I’ve gotten used to it.”
There are four other items that Samantha Paggeot owned before the fire that she salvaged from the rubble.
Three serving spoons and a fork that was stored in a box on a bottom kitchen shelf next to the refrigerator. The silver set with gold tips were a wedding gift and used for special occasions.
But now, sitting on Paggeot’s white kitchen counter, the blackened silverware serve as a reminder of how far the couple have come since that March day.
“If not for these, you couldn’t convince me that we had stayed there,” she said placing her fingers over the metal pieces. “It marks something.”
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or follow her at Twitter.com/tonyaroot.