PEPPERELL -- A local family has had to bid farewell to its youngest member following a New Ipswich, N.H., house fire that tragically took his life.
Mere weeks before Christmas, almost-2-year-old Gregory Paul Prince Jr., or "Buggie" as he was affectionately called by his mother, was one of hundreds of children greeting Santa Claus as a bright red Pepperell fire engine brought him up to the Lawrence Library for the annual Christmas tree lighting.
"He had a lot fun pointing at Santa when he came on the fire truck and 'oohing and ahhhing' at the kids singing," said Andrea Russell, the stepmother of the boy's mother, Kaila Prince. "We were enjoying him enjoying the new sights and scenes."
Less than two weeks later, Gregory's life was tragically cut short during a visit to his paternal grandparents' house. On Dec. 22, Kaila and her husband, Greg, had dropped Gregory off with Greg's parents for an overnight baby-sitting session. In the early morning hours of Dec. 23, as the residents slept, a fire swept the house. By the time firefighters arrived at around 5:30 a.m., it was fully enveloped by flames. Seven people were in the house; two perished in the fire. Gregory's uncle, 26-year-old Josh Prince, was also killed.
"He went back in the house for Gregory when he realized he wasn't outside," Russell said.
The grandparents were med-flighted to UMass Medical School in Worcester for severe smoke inhalation and were recently moved to Crotched Mountain in Greenfield, N.H., for rehabilitation.
The Russells, who were at a family Christmas party in Philadelphia, received word of the fire at 6:30 a.m.
"The house is on fire. Your grandson is missing."
Those were the words that Russell and her husband, Chris, first heard coming through the other end of the phone. But they were more than enough. Within minutes, the entire family, including their three younger children and a family friend, were piled in the car.
"You race back as quickly as you can without getting in trouble," said Russell. "And the whole ride is just anxiety-ridden because you don't know."
At the time, the family had not yet received word that Gregory had perished.
"We just heard he was missing and we were just praying that he was out in the woods but that he was safe."
But as the hours passed and still no news came of the boy's safe return, the anxiety turned into dread.
"As we got closer and closer to home, I just got this pit in my stomach and I just knew it was no good," Russell said.
About an hour away from home, at 11 a.m., the phone call came.
"Did they find him?" Norah, Russell's 8-year-old daughter, asked. That's when they broke the news to their children.
"It was just heart-wrenching to have to have this conversation with an 8-year-old who doesn't really get it," Russell said. "The tragedy in Connecticut had already opened discussions of sad things happening to good people."
Christmas was a blur. The following Saturday, the family held a memorial service for Gregory in Wilton, N.H.
Now, they prepare for what would have been the toddler's second birthday on Monday. Kaila has requested a small, private dinner.
The fire is still under investigation, but Russell says it appears to have been a tragic accident. Still, the family grapples with unanswered questions, largely centering on whether the smoke detectors were faulty.
"Those questions of why didn't anybody wake up? How did it start? What happened?" said Russell.
For now, the family is coping through fond memories of Gregory: How he enjoyed watching Kaila's sister, Kelsey, a junior at North Middlesex Regional High School, play soccer, his love of dogs and riding on lawn tractors and his smile.
"He was gregarious," said Russell. "He was a very outgoing and happy go-lucky child who loved to play and be outside. Just a very happy kid."
Russell said her stepdaughter is hanging in there.
"She's just being very strong, trying to move on with ways of how she can honor her son," she said.
They have also received comfort from members of the Pepperell Community Church, which they attend, and the Pepperell Lions Club, which donated funds for Gregory's memorial. Bailey's Bar and Grille has also assisted in providing food for the family.
"Our friends have been very supportive emotionally and financially through this," Russell said.
The Russells have also set up a memorial fund for Gregory through the Bank of America in Groton. Donations can be made to Gregory Prince Jr. Memorial.
Meanwhile, the family is spreading the message of fire safety.
"Go check your smoke detectors," said Russell. "This was just a kid sleeping over his grandparents' house. It's something that happens all the time."