BRAYMER, Mo. — The rolling hills around here are covered by snow, and temperatures dipped below zero Saturday morning.
But this community of 900 faces something much more chilling — the loss of five loved ones in a New Year’s Day fire.
At the Busy Bee restaurant, the only one in town that was open on Saturday, people huddled toward the back, away from the cold wind that blew in with each new customer. They shook their heads when they talked about the tragic fire.
At the Pony Express Bank, town leaders set up special bank accounts first thing Saturday to help the two bereaved families, the Russells and the Cosgroves, pay for funerals and other expenses.
School leaders met with counselors, preparing for Monday, when students must return to Braymer classrooms without two of their classmates. Community members visited and comforted the grieving families.
Mayor Kenneth Rogers said he could not recall the community being hit so brutally, certainly not in the eight years that he had been mayor.
“This is really hard,” Rogers said. “But Braymer will help them a lot.”
Killed in the fire were Lacey Stephens, 23, her boyfriend James Aaron Ford, 24, and their 4-month-old daughter, Kenzi Ford, along with Stony Mack Russell, 11, and his friend, Daniel Cosgrove, 11.
All lived in Braymer.
Four of the victims were members of Michelle Russell’s family. She is the mother of Stony Mack Russell and Lacey Stephens, and the grandmother of Kenzi.
Services for them and Ford will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Braymer High School.
The fire struck at the home of their grandmother and great-grandmother Judy Silkwood. It’s on a hilly gravel road about eight miles east of Braymer.
On Saturday, the home sat like so many others on a holiday weekend. The Christmas wreath hung on the front door, and holly adorned a mailbox stand.
The exterior showed no evidence of the tragedy that occurred inside.
But on Friday morning, Silkwood had run for help in the cold and dark once she discovered the blaze. A neighbor helped her search the basement where the five who died were trapped.
Another granddaughter, Lindsey Russell, who had been sleeping on the first floor, escaped. She and Silkwood were treated and released from a hospital.
Carroll County Sheriff Tom Hofstetter released a statement Saturday that the Missouri state fire marshal was continuing to investigate the fire. But no foul play was suspected.
Rogers said the town hadn’t received clear information yet about how the fire occurred, but he believed it must have spread from the basement fireplace.
Over and over on Saturday, people noted how hard it was for a small town to come to grips with so much death. Almost everyone knew the victims, usually in a personal way.
Rogers, the mayor, said he felt fortunate that his own grandson was not among the lost. He was close friends with one of the boys and might easily have been at the home for New Year’s Eve.
“I’m really shook up,” said a tired-looking Rogers.
Braymer school superintendent Don Regan said Braymer had faced tragedies before. “But I don’t know of any with this many fatalities. … This is a tight community; we’ll pull together to help them.”
The Rev. Eric Turner, minister of the First Baptist Church in Braymer, spoke Saturday for Michelle Russell and her family.
Michelle Russell teaches Sunday school, and Stony Mack had been active in a boys’ group at the church, Turner said.
“It’s definitely a major loss — not just for a church but for a community,” Turner said as he held his own 4-year-old daughter.
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