Days before Lisa Haas woke up in the middle of the night to find flames billowing near her home, she found four crucifixes while cleaning out her youngest child’s closet.
She hung a St. Benedict crucifix over his bed. A pewter cross Christian, 10, received for First Communion went near the entrance to his room. There was a cross adorned with a child praying that was placed in a wall corner.
Lisa planned to paint Christian’s room but hung the crosses anyway.
Each one, blessed by a priest in the Catholic Church, served a purpose, much like the other crucifixes in every room of the 6,500-square-foot home nestled on hundreds of acres in Kiln, a small town in north Hancock County.
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“I’ve always believed that blessed religious objects protect us,” Lisa said.
‘I thought I was going to die...’
In the early hours of Nov. 26, Lisa heard a noise that woke her “from a dead sleep.” She said it wasn’t a crash or a bang — it was something she found puzzling and hard to describe.
When she looked out the window toward the carport, she saw flames flying in the wind. She wasn’t sure if they had reached the house, but she took action.
The Haases are a family of seven. Four were in the house — Lisa, daughter Leigh, 30, and sons Christian and Kevin “Little Kev,” 22. Lisa’s husband, Kevin Haas, was not home. The oldest son, Wesley, was on a hunting trip. The youngest daughter, Clare, was away at college in Hattiesburg.
By the time Lisa woke up her three children, thick smoke had filled the first floor.
Leigh remembers being shocked when she walked into the smoky family room. Lisa Haas always left a lamp or night light on.
“The house is pitch black darkness … we couldn’t see anything,” Leigh Haas said. “Instantly, my throat started closing, my eyes were watering, and I couldn’t breathe. For a second, I thought I was going to do die in the living room.”
Lisa, Leigh, Kevin and Christian made it out onto the porch as smoke clouds billowed out of the front of the house.
“I’m on the porch, I’m running down the stairs, and the smoke is still so bad,” Leigh said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, am I ever going to get out of it?’”
Leigh remembers her mom yelling, “To the side! To the side!” Wind was blowing the smoke into the front yard, but the north side of the home was clear. There, Lisa instinctively did a head count.
Leigh, the oldest of the Haas children, lives in New Orleans and had not planned on staying home that night. She was driving through Slidell, Louisiana, on her way back to the city when her mother called and told her she’d left her makeup and jewelry.
It had rained Sunday and was foggy, so Leigh said she decided to sleep in Kiln and drive back in the morning.
But that night she saw her car in flames when she looked toward the carport.
The ground was cold and wet. Temperatures had dipped near freezing. Leigh was in an oversized T-shirt and Kevin had on only boxer briefs. Lisa was wearing a T-shirt and athletic shorts. Everyone was barefoot.
The relief of first responders
In that moment — as flames crept from the second floor down the main level of the house — Leigh, Lisa, Kevin and Christian watched silently in the cold.
“You just see the whole thing starting to catch and you just lose all hope, standing there in disbelief at what’s happening,” Leigh said.
“For what felt like hours, I thought it was just the four of us, in this world alone, and just kept praying and hoping that they (first responders) were going to get there. You slowly saw more and more catching.”
For Lisa, it was the first responders who brought relief.
“I remember feeling so alone, but I knew we weren’t going to be alone long, because I knew the sheriff’s department and Kiln and Fenton volunteer fire departments would be coming soon,” Lisa said, fighting back tears.
Firefighters battled the blaze until the early hours of the morning. Lisa said there was concern the fire would spread into the woods nearby, but crews were able to contain the fire.
Leigh said her mother described the wind as “merciless” that night.
Fire investigators told the family an initial investigation showed the fire started in the storage room off the carport. Then, the carport acted as a wind tunnel, shooting flames to the second floor.
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, the Haases opened up their home to family and close friends who lost their homes and possessions. Many of them lived in Bay St. Louis, Waveland and other areas in Hancock County that were left decimated.
“Our house is north of I-10 on a hill and 100 feet above sea level,” Leigh said. “All our family and friends lost everything so we became what I called ‘The Haas Commune.’”
At any given time that year, Leigh said there was anywhere from 30 to 40 people living in her house.
“On the floor, in all the bedrooms, and eventually in campers,” she said. “It protected us during the storm and was the safe place for everyone after.”
As the sun rose over Hancock County on Nov. 26, Leigh and her family began picking up the pieces where that refuge once stood.
The blaze reduced the six-bedroom, five-bathroom house to a pile of rubble. Bricks crumbled. Steal beams that supported the structure melted, twisted and fell. Three vehicles in the carport were burned to their frames. The foundation of the home sits under layers of ash, scalded wood and piles of scrap.
Lisa prayed and thanked God everyone made it out alive. Fire investigators said if they had been delayed by just 30 seconds — it could have been much worse.
Wesley, who was away hunting, slept in the bedroom upstairs. It appears flames spread to his room first.
And one of the family’s three dogs, Country, who was inside the house, has been missing since the fire.
For Leigh, losing her home was losing a piece of herself. The family moved into that red brick home with the large front porch when her now 18-year-old sister, Clare, was 3 weeks old. She watched all of her brothers and sisters grow up there.
The living room was the focal point of the home, Lisa said. The kids would pile up on couches and pallets, watch Westerns and Christmas movies and have sleepovers.
“When they were younger, we called our bedroom the clubhouse,” Lisa said. The Haas children would pile up in their bed, even before Lisa and Kevin woke up in the morning.
Little Kev, who is now 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, would always kneel at the end of Lisa and Kevin’s bed before he went to sleep, lean over the edge and tell his parents about his day.
That memory hasn’t changed, teary-eyed Lisa said, even though their home is gone.
4 people, 4 crucifixes
In the two weeks since the fire, the Haases haven’t found those four crucifixes that hung in Christian’s room, but what was left behind reinforces the family’s belief that a higher power was protecting them.
A devout Catholic, Lisa attends Mass regularly and often prays at adoration. She’s a teacher at Our Lady Academy Catholic School in Bay St. Louis.
“We’ve always had religious relics around the house,” Leigh said. “I have a ton around my New Orleans apartment. It’s part of who she is, and it’s just rubbed off on us.”
So far, all the Haases have been able to salvage from the rubble are four blessed guardian angel statues — all holding children.
Four people. Four crucifixes. Four guardian angels?
That’s more than fate, Lisa said.
“When those statues are blessed, they’re not statues anymore ... they become supernatural. They protect us.”
Leigh’s fingernails are stained black from the pounds of ash she’s sifted through since the fire. She’s the one who found the statues. And though she describes herself as the most cynical person in the family, said, “I kept thinking it was God telling me, ‘OK, Leigh, I got this. Take a seat. Be still.’
“If there’s anything I’ve taken from this, it is that there is something, I don’t know what, but there’s something greater than ourselves. Some type of power out there that’s so much bigger than us and that God was protecting my family. If I’ve learned anything, it’s how lucky we are.”
In the rubble, Leigh also found a guardian angel statue holding a child. The angle’s wings burned black, but the child in front is mint condition. She plans on getting it encased for her mother.
Some of the statues burned in the blaze were of St. Michael the Archangel, who Catholics often pray to for protection.
“I pray it all the time because he protects us from danger and evil. I can’t tell you how many times a day I pray it real quick,” Lisa said.
Lisa said those blessed statues were armor protecting her family from peril.
Community rallies and a blue Christmas
Since the fire, Lisa said the response from the Hancock County community has been unbelievable.
A GoFundMe campaign raised $13,000 from people in the tri-state area. People have donated food, clothing and electronics. The Haas family is renting a home nearby from a family friend.
Families and local restaurants have been taking part in a meal train program to make sure they have hot meals.
The Haas family said they are thankful for the support.
Immediately after the fire, extended family opened their doors, just like the Haases did 13 years ago after Hurricane Katrina. Friends and family helped lead donation drives. The Rev. Mike O’Connor at Our Lady in the Gulf has also been a huge help, Lisa said.
When asked if she and her husband would rebuild their home, Lisa said she was unsure.
“When I get real sad, the only thing that makes me feel better is the thought of rebuilding there,” she said.
She said she’d want it to be recreated as close to the original as possible.
Recovering from losing everything is emotionally draining, and the Haases are taking it day by day.
“As Catholics, we’re supposed to embrace the cross, so that’s what I’m trying to do,” Lisa said. “I don’t know how long it will take for us to feel good again, but I know there are a whole lot of other people with many crosses to bear. This is our cross to bear right now.”
While the Haases have lost everything, they will still come together and celebrate Christmas.
Christmas has been Leigh’s second favorite holiday behind Halloween, but she thinks it will be different this year.
“I can’t listen to Christmas music. I can’t watch Christmas movies. We’re so thankful that we’re all here and that we all made it and we have each other and we know that, but it’s still just going to be sad.”