'Angel' neighbor saves Sullivan County family from fire

Rain Smith • Nov 7, 2018 at 4:57 PM

INDIAN SPRINGS — A timely weekend talk about home fires and, most important, a typically deep sleeping “angel from God” neighbor who was jarred awake saved a family from an inferno early Monday.

“I know 100 percent that God had his hand on our family,” said Leigh Ann Miller, a fourth grade teacher at Holston Elementary in Blountville. “I truly believe God woke our neighbor up, and God sent Mr. Sluss to our door to save our lives.”

Monday, 3:30 a.m.

Leigh Ann awoke to the noise of someone banging on the door of her home, 5101 Blarney Road, and a frantic ringing of the doorbell. Her three children, ages 4, 12, and 14, were not initially awakened, nor was her husband, Clinton.

“And all the sudden, it sounded like somebody was trying to break in,” she recalled. “I woke my husband up and said, ‘Somebody is trying to break in!’ ”

“I beat on the door for what felt like 10 minutes, though I know it wasn’t,” said James Sluss, 42, an Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster for Troop 387 in Colonial Heights.

Moments earlier, Sluss had been sound asleep in his own bed, two houses down the street. He says he was stirred by what sounded like a car door slamming “on the top of my head.”

Reflection has led him to believe the noises were from the Millers’ home, where the fire is believed to have started at a vehicle. The slamming sound was likely its tires bursting from the heat, but considering his sleeping habits — and that the Miller household of five hadn’t awoken — Sluss thinks higher powers were also possibly at work.

“I am one of the soundest sleepers probably in the neighborhood,” Sluss told the Times News. “God or something woke me up. I would have normally slept through.”

Sounding the alarm

When Sluss spotted the burning vehicle, he dialed 911 and headed toward the Millers’ home. He had met the family just once. That was during a past Christmas, when a new drone belonging to one of the children got stuck on his roof.

He said that by the time he arrived at the residence Monday, the roof is what caught his attention. Flames had already reached the top of the house and were melting materials.

“If I would have taken an extra 30 seconds or a minute, it could have went totally different,” he says.

“We didn’t have minutes to spare,” added Leigh Ann. “We got out in seconds.”

When Clinton answered the door, Sluss alerted him to the spreading fire. Clinton then began screaming for everyone to get out.

A timely discussion

On Saturday night, the Millers had changed their smoke detector batteries with the switch to Eastern Standard Time, as recommended by fire department officials. When they began to evacuate their house some 36 hours later, the alarms weren’t sounding. All of the smoke was still in the attic. But a weekend discussion the family had about fire safety proved crucial.

Leigh Ann said that for the first time, they talked about escape procedures: looking for where flames may be, deciding how to exit, touching doors to test if they were hot.

Her oldest son, Joel, had a bedroom downstairs with two exits. On Monday morning, he faced a critical decision.

The nearest, downstairs door leads into the basement area. That’s where the fire had ignited at the vehicle outside and was already consuming that side of the house.

She said that before flinging the door open, Joel glanced out his front window, spotting light from the fire in the driveway. He then bolted up the stairs and out option two, the front door.

“If he would have opened that door, I’m not sure he would have made it,” said Leigh Ann.

All of the Millers safely exited, including their Labrador, Marley. Their other dog, Bentley, didn’t flee on his own, so Clinton hustled the scared toy poodle out of a bedroom.

Then the Millers and Sluss stood outside, watching flames dance through the bedroom windows. The fire quickly spread throughout the structure. Responding firefighters couldn’t prevent the home from being a total loss.

On Wednesday, while remembering that moment, Leigh Ann’s voice still cracked with emotion.

“I yelled at the top of my lungs, ‘You saved our lives!’ I see him as an angel from God. He’s unbelievable!”

Sluss is modest about his actions that morning. He said anyone “in their right mind” would have done the same thing.

Nonetheless, the incident has had an effect on him, too.

“I have come out of it thanking God for my family every day,” Sluss told the Times News. “And thanking God for everything he’s done and that he woke me up. It had to be a God thing.”

A community that cares

The Millers, who have lost everything, are staying with family and waiting for their insurance policy to kick in.

Luckily, Leigh Ann said with a laugh, the Millers are apparently more well-liked than they realized: Several organizations are helping the family get through the tough spot.

“She’s a phenomenal teacher and always goes above and beyond for students,” said Lesley Fleenor, principal of Holston Elementary. “So that’s been the response of her school. We have responded for her like she would for us.”

Staff, students and parents have been donating gift cards and money, according to Fleenor, along with plenty of letters and prayers. Holston Middle is collecting goods and donations as well. The Millers’ church, Indian Springs Baptist, has set up a GoFundMe page.

“I think God has a plan for us, for our family and our kids,” said Leigh Ann. “He’s blessed us, and the community has been amazing.”