Diane Pratt Soles lost her home to fire on Aug. 3, but her best friend and fellow classmates from Whiteville High stepped up Saturday to help her get a fresh start.
Like many in Southeastern North Carolina, Diane Pratt Soles lost power and decided to go to bed when Hurricane Isaias came shore.
Unlike most people dealing with the passing blow of the tropical system, Soles awoke to find her house on fire.
“The smoke was like a thick blanket across the ceiling,” she said. “You can’t understand it unless you’ve been in it.”
Soles is a 1974 graduate of Whiteville High, but lived off U.S. 701 near the Highway Patrol station at Elizabethtown. She and her 14 year old poodle Molly Ann weren’t completely in the dark when Isaias knocked the power out. The power went out at 12:09 a.m., she said, and she called the Duke Progress outage line.
“I had bought some of those emergency light bulbs that will burn for eight hours after the power is off,” she said. “I had them charged up, so I had light, but I didn’t want the power company to drive by and think my electricity was still on, so I unscrewed it.”
Molly Ann is mostly blind, Soles said, but can navigate if she has a little bit of late. Soles said she decided to light a candle for the elderly dog, and leave it on the plate of the coffee maker on her desk, right over Molly Ann’s bed.
“I figured the candle was in its container, and was on a hot plate,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
Instead, the candle set the Keurig on fire.
Soles said she awoke to the smell of gas, but went back to sleep.
“I knew it couldn’t be gas,” she said, but when the smell became stronger and awakened her again, she got up to check.
“That’s when I saw and smelled the smoke,” she said.
Soles immediately tried to get into the two rooms Molly Ann could access, but couldn’t get the doors open.
“I knew she was dead,” Soles said. “I just knew it.” She called 911, and the dispatcher told her to get out of the house, that help was on the way.
Outside in the wind and rain, Soles could see the glow of the flames in the part of the house where Molly Ann slept.
“She’s my baby,” she said. “I was just torn up.”
Firefighters and EMS quickly arrived on the scene, and she directed them to the area where the dog should have been. At first, they couldn’t find her. However, while some of the firefighters tackled the flames, others searched for the dog and found her, unconscious, under Soles’ desk.
“I knew she was gone,” Soles said. “I just knew it.”
However, the responders had a new kit designed to help resuscitate pets, and they were able to get Molly breathing again on her own.
“They told me it was the first time they’d used it,” Soles said. “I was just thanking God.”
Soles and Molly Ann found themselves standing in a driving rainstorm. Soles had nothing but her bedclothes and Molly Ann, until a family member brought her a pair of flip-flops.
“When you realize that you’re still alive, you understand that was all just stuff,” she said. “It was nothing but things – they were special to me, sure, but they didn’t matter. My life and Molly Ann were all that really mattered.”
Ann Soles Rockwell and Soles are lifelong friends. Since they were children, they have been close. They attended and graduated WHS together; Molly Ann is the mother of one of Rockwell’s dogs. Even after Soles and Rockwell’s brother were divorced, the two women remained inseparable.
When she found out about the fire, just a few hours afterward, Rockwell was thankful that her best friend was still alive, but she also knew what to do. She set about contacting fellow classmates from 1974, telling them about the plight of a woman many called a friend. A GoFundMe account got Soles a room at the Whiteville Econolodge where she could have Molly Ann. Others began assembling donations to help Soles get back on her feet.
Rockwell and Sally Mann of Whiteville then set out to surprise Soles in a special way.
“I told Sissy (Soles) that we were going on a picnic,” Rockwell said. “We hadn’t been on a picnic in 38 years, and she needed to get out and relax for a little while.” Soles was bemused, but she was happy to come along and reminisce about old times while enjoying an afternoon outing like those the women had at Leder Park years ago. They chose the parking area and greenspace in front of Edgewood Elementary.
With tears in her eyes, Soles was telling a visitor about her gratitude to God for saving her life when a small caravan of vehicles pulled onto the street in front of Edgewood Elementary and horns began blaring.
Mann and other alumni rolled up the street in cars emblazoned with signs and balloons, waving gift bags out the windows of the vehicle.
“This is for you,” Rockwell said.
“Oh my goodness,” Soles said.
Alumni, friends and family from as far away as Raleigh brought housewarming presents, basic necessities and other gifts. Soles remembered something about each one of the visitors, asking about families and jobs.
“I don’t know what to say,” Soles said. “This is just so special.”
Soles said she has always had a desire to help people in need, which is one thing that led her to be a nurse.
“I couldn’t stand to see somebody hurting or hungry,” she said. “Now I know what it’s like, and here people are helping me out.”
Soles never draws attention to her generosity, Rockwell said.
“She can’t stand to see somebody in need,” Rockwell said. “She has always bene like that. She’s given people groceries, bought them meals, gas – she loves helping people. That’s why we thought this was important. It’s her turn to be helped.”
Soles said she plans to keep her new home simple. She had planned to move back to Whiteville after her 65th birthday, which is later this year.
“I know what’s important now,” she said, gripping Rockwell’s hand. “People are what is important. As long as I have God, people and Molly Ann, I don’t need anything else.”