By Emily Blackwood and Jonathan Simmons
It was the smell of smoke that woke up 7-year-old Miller Clayton the night of Nov. 28. The house that he shared with his parents and two brothers in western Flagler County was engulfed in flames, and his father, 41-year-old Kevin Lee Clayton, would later be found dead inside its burned out frame.
Miller, who'd recently had a fire safety lesson at the Imagine School at Town Center, woke up his 4-year-old brother Luke. He put blankets over both of their heads as they crawled out of the house, then ran to a neighbor's home for help.
The boys had seen their father laying unconscious with a gun next to him, according to a Sheriff's Office report, but they didn't try to wake him because they were afraid of angering him. Investigators would later rule Kevin Lee Clayton's death an apparent suicide. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
"He was always a great and loving dad," she said. "The younger kids are okay right now, but they don't fully understand the finality of death."
— Amy Clayton, Kevin Lee Clayton's wife of 14 years
With rescuers on the way, a neighbor called the boys' mother, Amy, who was out of town with her 14-year-old son.
"She called me and said, 'Amy your house is on fire, and we can't get Kevin out,'" Amy Clayton said. "I fell to the ground."
"He was always a great and loving dad," she said. "The younger kids are OK right now, but they don't fully understand the finality of death. They don't get that they are never going to see their dad again. My oldest son is taking it the hardest because he realizes that."
The family's dog, Murdoch, also died in the fire.
The family's 14-year-old son, Kevin, was "the dog whisperer in our family," Amy Clayton said. "He's taking that loss hard."
Kevin Lee Clayton also leaves behind a 20-year-old daughter.
CAUSE STILL UNKNOWN
When firefighters arrived at the house, at 40 Kentucky Avenue off of County Road 2006 near Dead Lake, at about 8:45 p.m, the home was already engulfed.
A neighbor had tried to get into the house to rescue any occupants, but couldn't make it in because of the smoke.
"What he had learned in school helped him and his little brother escape, which is wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time."
—Imagine School Town Center Principal James Menard, who has spoken with the Clayton family every day since the fire
Eighteen firefighters worked to stop the flames. Power was shut off to about 1,000 homes on the local electrical grid as firefighters worked, and one suffered minor injuries, according to a county news release, and was hospitalized at Florida Hospital Flagler.
A garage behind the home and a nearby RV were also burned, and Flagler County Fire Rescue Capt. Richard Bennett noted in the news release that the fire seemed to have started in the back of the house. The home was a total loss, according to a Sheriff's Office statement.
After midnight, Flagler County Fire Marshal Joe King and State Fire Marshal Jeff Ruland began investigating the cause of the fire. They haven't yet released their findings.
COMMUNITY RALLIES AROUND FAMILY
In the fire's aftermath, Amy Clayton has found an overwhelming amount of community support: Between online donations and a collection at her Realty Pros office, the community has raised over $10,000 to help the family rebuild their lives.
Realtors Bill Navarra and Caryn Baker, who work at Realty Pros Assured in Ormond Beach with Amy Clayton, started a Go Fund Me account to help Amy and the children get back on their feet.
"They lost everything," Narvarra said. "We're trying to get the family into a rental, get new clothes, dishes, everything. Everything was destroyed. She's been my assistant for 10 years, and she has the biggest heart in the company. She is the heart of the company. Just an amazing person."
"Amy is one of the nicest people you could ever hope to know," Baker said. "She's also incredibly strong and resilient, so I' know she'll pull through this." "
Amy Clayton said she was overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation.
"I can't believe the kindness and compassion of people willing to help us, especially perfect strangers," she said. "I feel like all of that helps me know that we are going be OK."