Whiteville fire chief loses home in weekend blaze

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Photos given to WREG

MEMPHIS, Tenn. --  It was a tough weekend for one Mid-South family.

A husband and wife who normally respond to tragedy faced one of their own after their house burned to the ground.

Now, the Whiteville community is coming together to support a family used to supporting everyone else.

Family and friends of Ernie and Debbie Burkeen spent Sunday afternoon on their hands and knees, digging through rubble left behind.

WREG cameras captured loved ones hunting for belongings like Debbie's mother's wedding ring.

According to officials from the Whiteville Fire Department, the home caught fire around 5 p.m. Saturday.

Fire officials told WREG they haven't pinpointed a cause, but they believe an electrical issue might be to blame.

Assistant Chief Jonathan Swarey told WREG the blaze may have started in the bedroom then spread to the attic and quickly throughout the rest of the home.

Swarey says there were a total of six departments that responded to fight the fire, including their team, which is a volunteer fire department.

WREG spoke with Whiteville Police Chief Steven Stanley Sunday.

He said, "The fire lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of five hours, so it was a very long, drawn out process."

The police station sits across the street from the Burkeen's home.

Sgt. Debbie Burkeen is Stanley's friend and colleague.

She was on duty, attending a community event, when the call went out over the radio.

Chief Stanley told WREG, "I think what was said was, 'Oh my God, that's my address', of course she responded and was pretty close to one of the first ones on the scene."

Debbie's husband is Chief Ernie Burkeen, a firefighter of nearly 40 years, who has served as chief of the Whiteville Fire Department for the last decade.

Chief Stanley says in uniform and out, the Burkeens are the ones typically helping others.

"She is the one that when bad things like this happen to everybody or to anybody, she is the one that comes in and puts everything together, the benefits, the fundraisers."

Now that the tables are turned, the Burkeens, still too upset to talk on camera, say they're thankful.

"They just wanted me to express gratitude to everyone from the firemen to just random people showing up, giving them money and for all the prayers," explained Chief Stanley.

Sgt. Burkeen told WREG they've been living in the home for about 40 and it's the third time the home has caught fire.

She added, "The good Lord's got my attention now!"

So, as the process of rebuilding continues, Burkeen says it may not be on that property.

Nobody was at home at the time of the fire. However, Sgt. Burkeen says their dog was at home and passed away.

Swarey says since Chief Burkeen is an employee, they've asked the state fire marshal's office to handle the investigation.

Anyone interested in donating to the Burkeen family can contact the Whiteville Police Department at 731-254-9450.

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