By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Naomi Hughes was startled out of the dead of sleep, shooting up out of bed to investigate what sounded like a muffled explosion coming from outside. It was pitch dark, except for a slight glow coming from the backyard.
"I looked out the door, and the whole backyard was lit up and there were sparks coming out. And in my head I'm fussing because it's the day before Veterans Day, and I was like, 'Veterans Day is not a holiday for fireworks. Who is shooting off fireworks at this time of morning?'" Hughes recalled.
Indignation aside, the 45-year-old mother of four large boys - the eldest being 6-foot-7, 310-pound Camrhon Hughes, a soon-to-be freshman left tackle for the Texas Longhorns - looked at the clock only to see two blinking dots.
"And the power's out? Great," she thought.
Settling back into her bed to go back to sleep, she heard the faint sound of the fire alarm going off upstairs. Then came the distinct aroma of smoke. Upstairs, Naomi saw a noticeable red glow surrounding the bottom of the laundry room door about 10 feet from the thin staircase separating the two levels.
"I didn't go any further than the entry way (of the stairs), because you could see the redness around the door, and the smoke was just coming from under the door, and there was no need to attempt to go that way," she said.
Still in a drowsy daze, she called for her husband - who was known to fall asleep in the upstairs den. But this morning, around 3 a.m. on Nov. 10, Chris Hughes was in the final hours of his on-call duty with the City of Harker Heights wastewater department.
"Everybody get up, everybody get up," Naomi screamed as she headed back downstairs, where 18-year-old Camrhon and 12-year-old Rhandy were sleeping, as was their 17-year-old cousin Zaughvon Moore.
Sixteen-year-old Naashon, a 6-4 junior safety prospect at Harker Heights, and 13-year-old Christopher, who was immobilized after breaking both legs shooting hoops alone several weeks prior, slept upstairs in the living room.
Although the Hughes children were still in a dream-crusted haze, the next words out of her mouth were unmistakable: "Get out - the house is on fire!"
With his mother's words repeating in his head, Camrhon - clad in just his Longhorns pajama bottoms - grabbed his Knights letterman jacket from the closet, a pair of shoes and his cellphone and headed upstairs.
To his right, flames were already ransacking the computer and laundry rooms, as the heat pierced the see-through sliding door that separated both rooms from the kitchen area.
Directly in front of him, the garage was filling with smoke.
Through the front door, the family poured into the cold November morning with little but what they slept in.
Running to the left side of the house - within feet from where the fire started - Camrhon turned on the water hose.
His mother hollered from the driveway: "What are you doing? Stop that. It's not going to work."
But Camrhon couldn't hear anything but the crackle of the flames.
"I didn't have a shirt on, and I'm outside trying to spray it and spraying the tree (right next to me) and the grass is catching on fire," Camrhon said, "and I'm like, 'All right, I'm seeing this and I keep putting it out, why is it still getting hotter?' And then I look up and the tree's on fire and I (realize using the water hose) wasn't going to work."
The Harker Heights fire department received a call to Cliffside Drive in Harker Heights at 3:09 a.m. and was at the scene in less than five minutes, pulling up as the entire Hughes family watched in horror from the driveway.
By that point, the flames had already engulfed the entire left side of the Hughes' home, extending 10-to-20 feet into the air, covering 30-to-40 percent of the house and spreading to several surrounding trees on that side of the property.
"The left side of the house was pretty much gone on our arrival," Harker Heights Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Gallenstein said.
According to Gallenstein, the fire likely started as a short in the circuit breaker panel, causing the entire box to heat to more than 2,000 degrees, which in turn melted the live electrical wires providing power through the meter outside the house and causing them to come in contact with one another, creating the firework-like popping sound that woke the Hughes family.
The resulting sparks ignited the flames, which spread through the walls to the roof before retreating to the second level of the home. After more than 8,000 gallons of water, and nearly an hour of non-stop work by roughly 10 firemen, the blaze was put under control.
"Fire is an animal, and you never know how it's going to react," Gallenstein said.
The family's reaction was much simpler to understand.
Exhibiting a sort of calm shock, the five boys made their way down the hill as the fire still raged at its peak.
Harker Heights boys soccer coach Jared Cruddas, who lives with his wife and 3-year-old son four houses down the street, ushered every member of the large Hughes clan into his small three-bedroom home.
"To be honest, they were all pretty calm, calmer than I would have been if my house was being destroyed," Cruddas said.
"Knowing the Hughes boys, staying composed when running on adrenaline, they do have that going for them."
The youngest, Rhandy, fell right back to sleep in the Cruddas' bedroom while the rest of the boys just sat quietly in the living room, decompressing and contemplating the magnitude of their current situation.
"It was like a nightmare. You see all your possessions, everything you worked hard for, everything that you saved – it was all gone," said their father, Chris Hughes. "You have to learn to adapt and rebuild."
The rebuilding process, at least emotionally, began immediately. The boys, all except for Christopher, were in school later that morning. Naashon went straight to basketball practice while Camrhon and Zaughvon shot around until classes began.
"What else was there to do?" Camrhon said. "We couldn't stay home, obviously, and we needed to get away from all this, so, we just went to school."
Word of the tragedy spread throughout the entire Harker Heights community and the outpouring of support and assistance was almost instantaneous. Neighbors offered everything from cookies, casseroles and scones to blankets and toiletries. The Knights coaches and the Harker Heights athletic booster club gathered their resources and found clothes and shoes to fit the larger-than-average Hughes boys while also chipping in for a couple of gift cards.
"It's just hard to imagine losing everything in about 20 or 30 minutes," Heights head football coach Mike Mullins said. "That was the biggest thing, just to give them some sense of normal things and not disrupt their routine, at least as far as school was concerned."
After a little more than a month in a Killeen hotel, with the family spread through three rooms, the Hugheses were able to move into a two-story rental home in Heights just the week before Christmas.
"The outpouring of care for us was just unbelievable," Naomi said. "They were giving us blankets and clothes, and I didn't know where we were going to put all of it, we were in a hotel (laughs). But it was so sweet the way people wanted to help us, that's the kind of community we live in, I guess."
Digging through the rubble
Three days after watching their home burn, Camrhon and Naashon went back to the house to investigate the damage and look for anything worth salvaging. What they saw were the charred remains of their childhood, as embers along the walls smoked with the residual heat of the flames that ravaged their home just days before.
While Naashon went to the right, toward the partially unscathed part of the house, Camrhon turned left - right to where it all started. Walking through the scorched remnants of their dining room and kitchen area, the hulking Hughes heard a crack above him, and then another.
Known for his good footwork on the gridiron, Camrhon didn't have near the speed to escape as the entire roof collapsed on top of him, knocking the 300-pounder down and trapping him under the rubble.
Thankfully, Naashon - a fast-rising national safety recruit in his own right - heard the commotion and went to work trying to save his big brother in a moment he called "a little more scary than the fire."
"When I came around (the corner) I couldn't see Camrhon, all I saw was the roof and so I came over and moved the chimney and then I had to pick the roof up so he could scoot out from under it," Naashon said. "It wasn't as heavy as I thought, adrenaline was rushing, I guess, because I thought he was gone, but when I first saw him, all I saw was his feet. So I just lifted it off him."
No worse for wear, the eldest Hughes brothers are leading the family's recovery efforts with their efforts on the field of play.
Naashon, who is being recruited by half a dozen Big 12 schools, could join his brother at the Division I level in a year's time.
Camrhon's mission starts even sooner.
Two months removed from the fire, things are finally starting to get back to normal. And this week begins a major step forward for the entire Hughes family.
Camrhon, who graduated from Harker Heights in late December, is moving to Austin today to begin his college football career with the Longhorns a full semester early. Classes begin Tuesday at Texas.
But the transition doesn't come without its mixed emotions for new freshman.
"It's like I'm happy, because this is what I wanted the whole time, but then I'm nervous because everybody (else) is still here - my mom and dad, my little brothers," he said. "And after the fire, it just makes me kind of nervous."
For the rest of the Hughes family, school is being viewed as a reprieve, a chance to return to normalcy, especially for Christopher, who's been out of school since his injury. After months of convalescence, he returns fully healed and eager to finish his eighth-grade year at Eastern Hills Middle School.
"You look at it like it could have been a tragedy and everything, but we got out OK," Camrhon said.
And despite more than $300,000 worth of damage to property and possessions, and half the Cliffside house destroyed, the Hughes are hoping to rebuild on the same site.
Because, for this large and close-knit family, home is not about any particular location. It's about one another.
"Yeah the house burned down, but we're going to keep moving, doing what we have to do to stay together," Camrhon said.