NOTTINGHAM — Driven by flames from their home of four days, Dan and Brandy Vitale and their two young daughters stood in the cold, barefoot and in nightclothes. Within minutes, a boy in the neighborhood offered his shoes to the girls.
The gift was the start of a torrent of help and assistance from neighbors in a town the Vitales had called home for less than a week.
"Everybody has been so good," Brandy Vitale said Sunday. "The town is just incredible; we are so lucky to have such amazing people in our lives."
The fire broke out about 5:45 a.m. Friday; virtually everything the family owned was destroyed or badly damaged.
"I work in the lawyer's office that did the closing," said Dan Vitale's mother, Nancy Vitale of Hampstead. "My daughter-in-law and I were jumping up and down after they closed; they were so happy on Monday."
The Hampstead home of grandparents Dan Sr. and Nancy Vitale was quickly overwhelmed with donations of clothing and household supplies for their son's family. Checks and store gift cards have piled up — donations from friends, family and strangers.
Some came from family and friends. Much of it, though, came from Nottingham residents who responded to help a new family in town. One of the town's churches was opened so items left during clothing drives could be used to keep the family warm.
"There's a lot of community spirit," Fire Chief Jaye Vilchock said. "It's reflected in the fire department; we have 30 members who are giving it their all."
One of those Nottingham firefighters, Matthew Curry, a distant relative of the Vitale family, went back inside the house to save the family pets, a pair of cats.
After spending an emotional couple of days at their grandparents' Hampstead home, Anabelle, 7, and Lilly, 3, were asked by their grandfather what they would like to do Sunday.
"We'll do anything you want," Dan Vitale Sr. told the girls.
Anabelle's answer was that they wanted to go to Nottingham to see firefighters Stephen Ross and Jason Boyle, who were on EMS duty the morning of the fire. They wanted to thank them for the stuffed animals handed to them after the fire. "She can't wait to thank the firemen," Brandy Vitale said.The three-alarm fire is believed to have started in a third-floor wood stove in the family's A-frame home at 115 Highland Ave. When firefighters arrived, fire was showing from the roof.
Vilchock later apologized to the Vitales for damage done to the home during the fire. Walls were opened with fire axes and windows smashed as crews worked to make sure the fire was out.
But Dan Vitale Jr. said the walls, windows and floors of the house weren't all that important to him as he stood outside the gutted building with his wife and daughters.
"This is all I need, right here," he told Vilchock. "I don't need the walls, I don't need anything else."
2001 fatal fire
The Vitales already had a very personal view of the emotional turmoil that comes when fire hits a home in the dark of night.
More than a decade ago, Derek Vitale, Dan's brother, rescued an 8-month-old girl from a fire that claimed the life of her parents in Farmington.
Derek Vitale was with a friend, heading to a day of fishing on Lake Winnipesaukee in late August, 2001 when they saw an orange glow in the sky shortly after 3 a.m.
A house was on fire. Vitale and his friend honked the horn on their truck to alert residents.
Reaching the home, Vitale heard a child crying and used his T-shirt to filter the smoke as he crawled inside the building. He found the crying baby was in the same room as her mother, who perished in the fire, along with the father of the child.
Derek Vitale was honored with a 2002 Union Leader Heroes Award, and has maintained contact with the girl.
"That is pretty amazing; maybe it's coming back to him through his brother," said Dan Sr.
The Vitales are convinced that Nottingham will remain their home.
"Saturday morning, my son said to Brandy, 'Do you want to rebuild here?'" Nancy Vitale said. "She said, 'Hell, yes.'"