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Family shares emotional and painful experience of returning to the house they were forced to flee on Monday night due to a fire

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NAGEEZI — After four nights in a Bloomfield hotel, one family — whose house is about 150 feet from an oil production site that caught fire Monday  — returned home today, shaken and exhausted.

The fire, which started at a WPX Energy site off U.S. Highway 550, south of Nageezi, burned itself out on Thursday, and early investigations into its cause are underway, according to WPX. No one was injured in the incident, but several families were forced to evacuate.

James and Clara Murphy said returning to the house they fled Monday night amidst exploding storage tanks, flames and black smoke was painful.

"I didn't feel like coming back," said Clara Murphy, the family's matriarch.

She stood in her family's yard, looking at the burned well site, which was guarded by security and WPX personnel this morning.

"We never thought anything like this would happen," said the 55-year-old, through tears. "What happened Monday night was scary. I don't know what they're going to do, to rebuild it or not. I don't know. I know we're going to move out. We don't want to live here. My husband, he got scared. I'm scared. We also fear for our grandkids, and they're staying with us."

Outer panes on several of the home's windows were visibly cracked, and the loss of one of the family's dogs and four chickens was an disturbing result of the incident, she said.

Six of the family's dogs survived and were taken to relatives' homes on Wednesday. The family's cats were boarded at an animal shelter in Aztec, courtesy of WPX, said the couple's adult daughter, Caleesha Murphy. She added that four of the family's chickens were taken to be autopsied by a firm hired by WPX.

Going into the home today made several family members feel sick, she said.

"It just didn't feel right, when we went in the house," Caleesha Murphy said. "Like we were going to throw up, nauseated. Headaches."

Bisected by U.S. Highway 550, the checkerboard land in this part of the Eastern Navajo Agency is populated by pump jacks at oil and gas sites and trailer houses that dot the shrubby, hilly landscape.

Since the mid-1970s, James and Clara Murphy have lived in the Nageezi area on an allotment parcel just south of their orange house beside the oil production site. About three years ago, a feud with a relative over the allotted parcel drove the couple a mile north to the home they had to flee Monday night.

The family today expressed concerns that chapter officials have not extended help to them.

"I don't know why (Nageezi Chapter House President) Ervin Chavez didn't come by to see the family while we were staying in the hotel. He only lives a few miles from there," Clara Murphy said.

When reached by phone tonight, Chavez said the impression that the chapter is not there to assist its community is a misunderstanding. He said he was in Window Rock, Ariz., today for a meeting of the tribal Housing Authority's board of commissioners, of which he is the chairman.

Given the incident, he said the family's frustration is understandable. He also suggested their ire may be political.

"This is an election year for the chapters, so I'm not a bit surprised," Chavez said.

He expressed sympathy for what the family has endured, however.

"I feel for the families, and I am sorry for the Murphys," Chavez said. "I hope it never happens again. I don't blame them. I wouldn't go back, either."

Former Navajo Nation Council Delegate Danny Simpson, who is also the Nageezi Chapter coordinator, attended meetings on Thursday that WPX officials held at the hotel where 10 evacuated families were staying, Chavez said.

Chavez said he instructed Simpson to distribute discretionary money to help the families. The Murphys received $300, which Chavez said was one of the largest checks due to the family's size. Five other families also received money, Chavez said.

When WPX officials deliver findings from their investigation into the cause of the fire, Chavez said the chapter will hold a meeting to address concerns over the incident. He said multiple stakeholders from the Navajo Nation, San Juan County and others will be included.

Before the well fire, Jerry Francisco and Caleesha Murphy said they were planning a "first laugh" party for their five-month-old daughter, Caylynn. The Navajo custom calls for a party to honor the child after his or her first laugh.

The couple said that for now the party is off.

"I don't think people want to come over here and see that," Jerry Francisco said, pointing to the burned well site.

As the family waited outside their home today, they spotted Jason Murphy, another of James and Clara Murphy's children, driving down the dirt road.

When he pulled up, he and his wife carried the family's two cats that had spent a pair of nights at the Aztec shelter — gray mix tabbies named Batman and Superman — and placed them on the ground near a plastic trash can lid overturned for use as a water dish.

"They look okay," Clara Murphy said.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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