By Brian Messenger
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Five years ago, a U.S. Marine presented Bobby Rupkey with an American flag during his father’s funeral. Yesterday, a firefighter handed Rupkey the flag after pulling it from his grandparents’ burning home.
“I keep this flag near and dear to me,” said Rupkey as he clenched the charred flag still folded tightly in a triangle. “It is my most prized possession. I’m glad I still have it.”
Firefighters responded to a fire at 347 Wood Lane yesterday at around 2:15 p.m. and had the blaze under control within an hour. Rupkey was home with his grandparents, James and Mary St. Hilaire, and helped them to safety before calling 911.
Rupkey, 21, said the first indication something was wrong came when his grandmother said she smelled smoke. He quickly ran down the hallway connecting the main portion of the house to a two-bay garage and addition and was greeted by thick, black smoke.
“You couldn’t see a foot in front of you,” said Rupkey, whose father, Robert C. Rupkey, was a Lawrence native, U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran.
Rupkey’s mother Mary also lives at 347 Wood Lane — a long dead-end located between Waverley Road and Massachusetts Avenue — but she was not home at the time the fire broke out.
The family also had five cats and at least three were saved, though it was unclear yesterday whether the others survived.
North Andover fire Chief Andrew Melnikas said the cause of the fire was under investigation.
Melnikas said flames were visible through the rear window of the addition when firefighters arrived. Fire damage was contained to the garage and addition, though some smoke and heat damage spread to the main section of the house, which will likely force the residents to be temporarily displaced until repairs are made, according to the chief.
“They’re not going to be able to stay here until we clean that area out,” said Melnikas.