Single father, former soldier regroups after fire destroys family home

A gofundme site was started for Billy Joe Norwood, a former soldier who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, after his house in Butte, Mt., burned down.

By ANNIE PENTILLA | The Montana Standard | Published: November 17, 2018

BUTTE, Mt. (Tribune News Service) -- Billy Joe Norwood and his two children don't have much after a fire destroyed the family's home on Wednesday, but they have each other, their two dogs, and their pet tortoise Sammy.

Norwood, who served three tours in Iraq, returned to his home on B Street Wednesday afternoon after walking his dogs to find his house surrounded by smoke and an off-duty fireman standing outside his residence. The fireman told Norwood not to go inside. Afterward, the single father of two watched as more firefighters arrived and worked to put out the blaze.

Norwood has owned the home since 2004, and the residence has special meaning to him. It's been his children's home since they've been in Butte and is also the last place where his first son Nicholas lived. Nicholas passed away when he was just 14 months old from a mitochondrial disease.

"I was devastated," said the Butte native when asked what was going through his mind as firefighters attempted to save his home. For him the scene was surreal -- like something out of a movie.

Norwood and his daughter Livia, 10, and Lane, 11, have been living in a hotel in the wake of the fire.

Norwood said he's not sure if his house on B Street is salvageable. Smoke and water damage is present throughout the home, and the fire badly damage the residence's roof, which had multiple layers from successive years of renovations.

Norwood said he has hired a contractor to see if the home can be saved. "But in my opinion, it's gone," he said, noting he's anticipating bad news.

He added that he has a goal of finding a place to rent within the next couple of weeks.

Both Livia and Lane were at school at Kennedy Elementary when they heard from their grandmother that their home was on fire. Their dad later picked them up from school.

Lane said he wasn't sad when the fire broke out, but now he misses his home.

Livia said during the fire she was worried about the family's two dogs and their pet Sammy -- a Russian tortoise over 20 years old that was passed down to her and her brother by their great-grandmother. Thinking about the possibility of losing Sammy, she said, made her cry.

Firefighters looked for Sammy after the fire but were unsuccessful. Norwood later returned to the home to board up the windows, gather whatever was salvageable, and look for the pet tortoise. Finally, in the early morning hours, he found the free-roaming tortoise alive and well in the rubble.

A lot was riding emotionally on finding the tortoise for the family, Norwood said, so he was relieved when he finally found her.

"She's got nine lives like a cat," he said.

Losing their home was hard, but in the wake of the disaster, the Butte community has rallied to support the family, which has little left after smoke destroyed nearly all of the Norwoods' possessions.

After the fire, the American Red Cross helped the family with emergency assistance, and Kennedy Elementary has stepped up to help the family in the form of donated clothing, gift cards, canned food, and more. Norwood's sister, meanwhile, has set up a GoFundMe page to benefit the family at gofundme.com/joe-norwood.

Casey Fellows, owner of Ardis & Casey's Classy but Sassy, a women's clothing boutique at 2201 Harrison Ave., behind the Social Security office, has also been working to help the family by collecting clothing donations. The store is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fellows said, and is still accepting items that could help the family.

This isn't the first time Fellows has collected items for fire victims in Butte.

In November of last year, the shop owner ran a similar campaign from her store for a family whose home on Walnut Street was destroyed by fire.

Fellows said she knows Norwood and she also knows what it's like "to be without."
"It's hard to pick up from absolutely nothing," she said.

Fellows described Norwood as a hard worker and a good father.

Norwood said he's impressed with Butte firefighters, who not only worked hard to save his home but also had the insight to know to save his family photos and his military uniform from the fire.

Norwood served three tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry "Wolfhound" Regiment. During his service, he suffered a traumatic brain injury after an improvised explosive device went off. He's still recovering from his injury.

"The Butte community has been very supportive, very generous," said Norwood, reflecting on the support he's received. "I want to thank Kennedy School and the community."

(c)2018 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.)
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