Former Shaftsbury lawmaker, friend forced to flee blaze
SHAFTSBURY — Former longtime state Rep. Alice Miller and her friend Magdalena Usategui are struggling to put behind them a devastating nighttime fire that gutted the small house Usategui occupied on Miller's Horton Hill Road property.
While both women managed to narrowly escape the Aug. 4 blaze and the dense black smoke it generated, Miller said each feels heartbroken by the loss of four cats that perished.
"I lost Toby, who was my best friend," Miller said this week.
Usategui, who is known for her work as director of the Francis of Assisi Society for Companion Animals, which rescues and tries to place feral or abandoned cats with homes, lost three pet cats.
"She was just heartbroken," Miller said, adding that all of the cats had been rescued by volunteers with the organization.
In addition, the small house, which Miller and her mother created from a cow barn, was heavily damaged. The structure is still standing but fire and smoke damage is evident throughout and it is inhabitable.
The women are now staying in Miller's farmhouse, which is located nearby, while she considers whether to rebuild. Insurance investigators and adjusters were expected to inspect the site this week, Miller said, to estimate the damage and pinpoint the cause of the fire.
Shaftsbury Fire Chief Joseph Vadakin said the fire was "going good" when firefighters arrived and they had to work quickly to knock down the flames.
He said Miller had been staying in the smaller house to assist Usategui, who has health issues and has difficulty getting around. The fire started in the front porch area, he said.
Firefighters from North Bennington and Bennington Rural departments also responded to the site, which is off the upper end of Twitchill Hill Road.
In describing the fire, Miller said she had been staying in the house to help Usategui, who has had knee and previously back surgery and has limited mobility.
She said she was asleep around 10 p.m. when she heard a scream and woke up to find a campfire-like blaze roaring in the porch area.
Miller then helped Usategui with great difficulty toward the back entrance, also trying to convince her friend not to look for the cats amid the fire.
At one point, she said, "I grabbed her and lifted her. It is incredible the kind of strength you can get in an emergency."
"I thank God I was in the house," Miller said. "She never would have gotten out."
Beside the flames, Miller said the house was filling with thick black smoke, and the women once had to duck out of a central space to avoid a rush of heat and smoke coming toward them.
"We really got out by the skin of our teeth," Miller said.
After struggling outdoors, she said she had to scramble to move her car away before the flames could reach the gas tank.
While they were trying to get out the rear entrance, she said, neighbors had gathered around the house and were calling the women and knocking on the windows, unable to see what was happening inside.
The neighbors told her "we were in there a long time" while the house burned, Miller said.
"It was all terrible," she said, "but everybody here has been so kind."
Most of the contents of the house "was all rubble," she said, including an antique doll collection belonging to Usategui.
Miller, who retired from the Vermont House last year after serving 11 terms, represented the Shaftsbury-Sunderland-Glastenbury district.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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