It was a perfectly mellow Saturday afternoon. Mom Colleen Schuller was messing around on the computer downstairs. Emma, 15, had wandered down to the kitchen for a drink. Olivia, 10, was chilling in her upstairs bedroom.
Dad Dave Schuller put baby Josephine in her stroller on the sidewalk and then darted inside to tell his wife he was going for a quick walk. As soon as he flipped the light switch on the stairs, the house lurched into a ball of fire and noise.
"It was just seconds," Dave said.
A video taken by a neighbor showed the flames from the natural-gas explosion roaring high above the house and licking furiously at the sides of neighboring homes. Dave suffered third-degree burns on his face and left arm -- "the nurse said the only thing that saved me from skin grafts was my beard" -- and Olivia had a lacerated liver that required two days' stay in the hospital. One cat, Angelo, died in the fire. But another, Abby, survived. They found her soot-covered and starving 10 days later, hanging around the site of the blast.
The house was reduced to a soggy muck of broken water lines, charred rubble, rotted food and insects.
"We found one burned-up bra, half a Jonas Brothers poster and Josie's favorite doll," Colleen said. "That was all we could recognize."
The mess was hauled off, including the bathroom Dave had installed in the lower level and the cheerful red trim they added to the front porch mere weeks before.
The Schullers settled into their tense new life -- working, going to school, battling the insurance company and generally feeling more scared.
"I was still pretty unsettled at the rental house," Colleen said. "I didn't sleep well."
The girls didn't want to talk about the explosion at all. Even Abby emerged from the trauma a more skittish kitty.
But the family did have one ace in its back pocket. Colleen's cousin is an interior designer, A.J. Paron-Wildes, who declared herself the family's pro bono designer and general contractor almost immediately after the explosion. As the Schullers tried to put their lives back in order, Paron- Wildes embarked on a project unlike any other in her career: designing a home for a family that needed safety above all else.
"Usually, when people are designing a house, people have been thinking for a long time about what they want, what colors, what look," Paron-Wildes said. "But it was such a shock, so overwhelming. I'd ask Colleen what she wanted, and she'd be like, 'Oh, I don't know. I don't know.'"
Paron-Wildes knew going in that the insurance money would not create the safe haven the family needed.
"Laminate counters don't say 'solid' and 'enduring' to me," she said.
So she contacted her colleagues in the design field. Great Northern Granite offered the island top and perimeter counters. Grohe provided some high-end faucets. Vitra donated sinks and toilets. Corian threw in a bathroom countertop. Soon the project was officially adopted by the Northland chapter of the International Interior Design Chapter as a charity project, and the Schullers had $45,000 in upgrades, including a healing cedar sauna.
Paron-Wildes and Colleen chose an earthy palette for the main level with red birch floors, forest-green floor rugs, a stone-faced fireplace and terra cotta on the walls. The designer added subtle aesthetic references to evoke the concept of escaping and agelessness. The tile in the master bath, for instance, is a weathered Tuscan pattern, meant to evoke buildings that have stood for centuries. Paron-Wildes also designed the house with 9-foot ceilings, ample windows and an extra door from Dave and Colleen's bedroom.
"If we need to get out fast, we can," Colleen said.
There were other, more technical, choices. Colleen and Dave allowed a new gas water heater and two new gas fireplaces, but only because they have fail-safe switches that guard against gas leaks. Even so, Colleen bought a hand-held gas leak detector and about seven fire extinguishers.
"I kind of went a little crazy at Home Depot," she said.
The girls' bedrooms upstairs now have fire-escape ladders, and the house is equipped with a highly sophisticated alarm system with heat sensors that connect directly with the fire station.
The walls are mostly covered in vignettes of wide-open skies, rocky vistas and the family's favorite haunts in Colorado. But there also are many family photos donated by relatives or reprinted from a photo-sharing website.
Six months into their new house, Paron-Wildes is still adding a few touches here and there, including a red decal for the girls' study, the Chinese symbol for happiness.
But the ultimate goal has already been taken care of: a family that feels more at home.
"It was amazing," Colleen said. "We moved into the new house, and suddenly I could sleep better."
Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis freelance writer.