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Displaced by blaze at apartment, family buys house
Denise Prowell and her husband, Kurt, have bought a home next door to the apartment complex on Prickett Lane that was destroyed by fire in April. The former residents of apartment No. 7 moved into the home with their children Legend and Elizabeth.

When Denise Prowell looks out her kitchen window, she can see a large dirt hole where the Prickett Lane apartments once stood.

Two side-by-side buildings with six units each burned in a fire on April 13 that killed one man and left 25 tenants without homes. Prowell and her family lived in one of those apartments.

Now Denise, her husband, Kurt, and two of three of Denise's children live in the house next door, at 222 Prickett Lane, in the central Billings neighborhood. In seven months, they truly have come full circle.

When they go out into their backyard, they can still see a metal pole with a number 7 still on it, where their apartment's backdoor used to be. Two children's plastic riding toys remain in the grassy backyard of the roped-off area that once was home to the apartments.

"I look at the mailboxes," Denise said of the apartment's two rows of black metal boxes that stand near the street. "It just reminds you how fast life can change."

Kurt, 44, and Denise, 43, have been married for nearly four years. Denise's daughter, Elizabeth, 18, and son Legend, 6, live full-time with the couple, and son Colton, 10, lives with them on weekends.

Kurt, out of town most weeks, is the lead carpenter for Hi-Tech Construction. These days, that means driving to Glendive to work on the Glendive Medical Center project.

Denise is activities director at Ponderosa Pines Health Care, which she calls her dream job. Elizabeth, 18, is a senior at West High, and Legend is in first grade at Washington Elementary.

As they look back to the day of the fire, they say it was a Sunday afternoon like any other. The family, who had lived in the apartment for six months, was about to eat dinner, Kurt said.

"Our son Colton just got done saying grace," he said, when someone banged on the door and shouted "fire!"

Elizabeth was upstairs with a friend, getting ready to go out and pick up some job applications.

"I heard my mom say 'fire,' " Elizabeth said. "I just thought it was going to be a small fire, but it wasn't."

The family hurriedly exited the apartment, only to see the complex engulfed in flames.

"By the time we got out, it was unbearable," Kurt said.

Their apartment was one of four that actually sustained the bulk of their damage from water and mildew, not fire. Kurt quickly ran back in to grab a few photos, some medicine and a cell-phone charger.

But they didn't take many necessities.

"All my shoes got burned, and I didn't have any socks or shoes," Legend said.

As difficult as losing the bulk of possessions is, it doesn't come close to suffering the loss of people.

Twenty-two-year-old James Taylor, son of Diana Taylor, died in the fire. Two days later, 5-year-old David Armstrong drowned during a pool party that was meant to give relief to the victims of the fire.

"It was devastating, the loss of Diana's son," Elizabeth said.

"And then the loss of David was tragic," Kurt added. "David was gone in a moment."

Coping with the emotional devastation, the family also had to grapple with the harsh realities of finding a place to live, furnishing it and acquiring new clothes. They soon found, as did all the residents, that they didn't have to face the task alone.

Individuals, organizations and businesses stepped up to supply all of their needs. Red Cross volunteers helped the families find temporary housing in local motels.

Mike Easton, owner of B.P. Asset Management, the company that managed the apartment complex, and Dawn White, property manager with the same firm, worked with tenants to help them find housing and the help they needed.

"We were very involved with all of the families during this process, so it was very emotional for us," White said. "We went through the roller-coaster ride with them."

Businesses, such as Wal-Mart, donated clothes and gift cards.

Area schools and at least one radio station did fundraising for the families. The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department set up a special fund for the Armstrong family.

Scheels Sports Shops offered shoes to all of the apartment residents. St. Vincent de Paul provided furniture and clothing and bicycles. And countless individuals stepped forward to help however they could.

Easton and his wife, along with a West High group, took Elizabeth shopping for clothes. The Buckle, at Rimrock Mall, pitched in with free clothing, she said.

The kindness shown to the victims was overwhelming, Kurt said.

"There's no way to give enough thanks or give enough back," he said.

The property management company found an 800-square-foot trailer where the Prowells could live.

"At first it was great, it was home and we were so excited we weren't living in a motel," Kurt said. "As we acquired things, it became smaller and smaller."

Needing something bigger, they went to see Easton and White and found out that a home was available to rent. Then they found out the address, Denise said.

She hadn't driven down Prickett Lane since the fire.

"And we just drove down the road that day and decided we could do this," she said. "I believe everything happens in this world for a reason. God turns it around for good."

For the Prowells, the house that they moved into in August became the house they were able to buy in November. If they were still living in the apartment, the opportunity might never have come up, Kurt said.

As they look back to the fire, Kurt said it feels like it happened "a lifetime ago." Members of West Park Baptist Church, the Prowells turned to their pastor and their faith for comfort in the hard, early months.

And, according to Denise, they discovered something about themselves.

"We've realized we can get through hard times," she said. "Our marriage is stronger, and our family has grown a lot."

Some things they lost in the fire can't be recovered.

"But we build special memories now," she said.

Kurt said he tries not to think about the fire much any more. It's time to move on, he said.

And though he acknowledges all that he and his family went through, he points to the families who lost people they loved in the fire or in its aftermath.

"They truly are the courageous ones," he said.