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How a Southampton family copes in aftermath of deadly fire

Eric Nordberg divides his life into two parts - before the fire and after. Before, he had a nice house in the suburbs, an established business in Center City, a wife who made him laugh, and three happy daughters.

Julia Nordberg, 4, is recovering from injuries in the May house fire that killed her baby sister. (DEVON DRESING)
Julia Nordberg, 4, is recovering from injuries in the May house fire that killed her baby sister. (DEVON DRESING)Read more

Eric Nordberg divides his life into two parts - before the fire and after.

Before, he had a nice house in the suburbs, an established business in Center City, a wife who made him laugh, and three happy daughters.

Fire consumed his Bucks County house on May 25, killing baby Katie, 17 months, and critically injuring his wife, Susan Thomas. Initially, doctors told Nordberg that because of smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation and the length of time her brain went without oxygen, the prognosis for middle daughter Julia, 4, was grim.

Now, his life is centered on a room at a rehabilitation facility attached to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where victory is measured in bites of lunch, tentative steps taken, and the soft, throaty voice Nordberg feared he'd never hear again.

"Julia," Nordberg said, "makes a terrible situation better."

The little girl has astonished everyone with her progress.

Despite the bad news doctors initially gave Nordberg, Julia, who turned 4 just days before the fire, has regained her voice, now speaking in full sentences. Though she still uses a wheelchair, she's re-learning how to walk and must train her body to master motor skills again.

Nordberg, who owns TimeCycle Inc., a courier business in Old City, has not been to the office since the fire. He sleeps on the couch in Julia's room and devotes himself full-time to managing her rehabilitation.

Led by office manager/chief financial officer and family friend Devon Dresing, Nordberg's motley crew of bike couriers and customer service representatives is running the business, holding fund-raisers, assisting with insurance paperwork, and visiting Julia and her mother.

Oldest daughter Bethany, 14, who was at school at the time of the blaze, lives for now with her best friend's family in Southampton. She makes frequent trips to Philadelphia to see Julia and her father.

Thomas, 33, who before the fire was known for her quick wit, generosity, and devotion to her family, is now at a nursing facility in Warrington. She remains in a coma, dependent on a ventilator.

"Sue's prognosis is poor," Nordberg said. "I don't think it's completely hopeless yet, but it's extraordinarily bad."

Nordberg visits when he can.

"I don't think Sue can hear me," he said. "But I know all she wants is for Julia to be OK."

The fire broke out about 2 p.m. in the family's dining room in Southampton. A neighbor dialed 911, and firefighters found Thomas, Julia, and Katie in an upstairs bedroom. Crews took Katie to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Upper Southampton officials said Friday that the fire's cause was still undetermined, but that Katie's death was ruled accidental.

Losing Katie is excruciating, said Nordberg.

"That's what hurts the most," he said.

So he focuses on Julia, with her soft blond curls and sassy streak, who one day last week sat on her dad's lap grinning, demanding to be tickled.

When Nordberg obliged, she reclined on the couch, dissolving into giggles. After a minute, she said something unintelligible in her whispery voice.

"Do you want help? Ask for help if you need it," Nordberg prompted gently.

"Can you help me sit up?" she said softly.

Nordberg sat her up slowly. She smiled and thanked him.

Julia is more alert every day, more frustrated that she's still in the hospital. She has woken up sobbing, asking to go home. She has asked why her legs don't work well. Nordberg tells her he'll stay with her, tells her she's getting much stronger and that her legs will work soon.

Doctors expect Julia to remain at Children's through August. The family will then move to a temporary home, and Nordberg plans to rebuild on the site of the current house.

Julia does not remember the fire or know that her baby sister died. She knows she's in the hospital and that her mother and sisters are not with her. Last week, she asked about her mother for the first time.

"I told her she was in the hospital," Nordberg said. "She wasn't happy."

Though Julia has already recovered much more than doctors thought she would, Nordberg knows she may have deficits. But she is undoubtedly the same happy, outgoing girl who loves the stuffed robot toy her uncle made her and keeps everyone laughing with her easy chatter.

"She's just a happy, crazy kid," Nordberg said. "She's the most extroverted person I know. Everyone is happy to meet Julia."

The sea change in his life still feels surreal to Nordberg.

"I just wish I could go back to that Tuesday morning," he said. "Everything was going great - we were happy, we get along great, we have wonderful kids. We had smoke detectors, it was the middle of the day, but this still happened."

The family moved to Southampton two years ago from Northeast Philadelphia. Nordberg often biked the 20 miles to work; Sue and the girls visited his office often, helping to stuff envelopes on nights when the staff sent out monthly invoices. Julia loves to talk to the couriers over the radio.

Nordberg met Thomas when her brother worked for TimeCycle. She called looking for him, got Nordberg, and the two hit it off.

"That was almost 16 years ago," he said. "And now we're here."

These days, the TimeCycle crew is shorthanded without Nordberg, but still managing well, said Dresing. No one can take a vacation, but that's OK, she said.

"Everyone pitches in," Dresing said. "We're a family. Eric has a lot to handle."

Everyone has been heartened by people's reaction to the tragedy.

Total strangers have sent checks. Bethany's school held a fund-raiser. Ex-couriers showed up in force at Katie's funeral. Customers and competitors are writing letters and posting messages on Internet message boards, expressing a desire to do whatever they can.

Another fund-raiser, a bike race, is planned for later this month.

Nordberg has good health and homeowner's insurance, but there are bills that aren't covered. Still, Nordberg said he's going to be OK.

"The only thing I need," he said, "is for Julia to be fine."

More About the Nordberg Family

For more information about the family's progress and the fund-raiser, visit