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Grim homecoming for Colorado soldier

By Kiran Khalid, CNN
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sat July 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Capt. Immanuel Mgana returned to Colorado Springs from his station in Africa
  • His home was destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire
  • He and his wife learned about their home's fate from a Denver Post photo
  • His wife and three children had evacuated hours earlier

Colorado Springs, Colorado (CNN) -- U.S. Army Capt. Immanuel Mgana was half a world away from his home and his family in Colorado Springs on June 26, when he received a text message from his wife: It was an image of a house on fire with the words, "This is our home."

"I could identify the house because of my car, which was in the driveway," he said.

Both Mgana and his wife, Melissa, had been following the news of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which had started three days earlier, but neither was aware of their home's fate until they saw that photo, which had been splashed across the front page of the Denver Post.

From his post in the Horn of Africa, Mgana wasn't even aware that his family's home was in danger of being consumed by the wildfire.

Just hours before sending that text, Melissa Mgana had scrambled the couple's three kids into a car and rushed to a friend's house, abandoning plans to celebrate their son Kael's 10th birthday.

"We had picked up the cake. We were just preparing for a birthday evening," she said.

The Mganas\' home was front and center in this photo featured on the front page of the Denver Post.
The Mganas' home was front and center in this photo featured on the front page of the Denver Post.

Amid the last-minute birthday preparations, Melissa continually checked local news reports about the progress of the massive fire as it bore down on Colorado Springs. At that time, the blaze had forced the evacuation of 11,000 people (that number would later triple), threatening 13,000 homes, and none of the fire had been contained.

"I was watching the news and I would run outside and look at the plume," she said.

As the sky grew darker and more ominous, Melissa knew time was running out.

A firefighter works a burnout operation on the north flank of the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyoming, on Wednesday, July 4. More than 800 firefighters are working 15-hour shifts battling the fire that has exceeded 56,000 acres, according to fire information services. A firefighter works a burnout operation on the north flank of the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyoming, on Wednesday, July 4. More than 800 firefighters are working 15-hour shifts battling the fire that has exceeded 56,000 acres, according to fire information services.
Wildfires devastate Western states
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Photos: Wildfires devastate Western states Photos: Wildfires devastate Western states

"When I looked up and saw the flames coming over the ridge is when I knew it was possibly very serious," she said. "I just said, 'We need to get out of here.'"

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She knew she made the right decision hours later, when she saw the Denver Post's front page. She immediately sent the image to her husband, who showed the photo to his superiors.

"The first thing they said was 'You need to go home,' " he said. "I was on the next flight out."

As he boarded a flight home, Immanuel Mgana stayed in touch with his wife, keeping tabs on the situation without telling her that he was homeward bound.

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A day later, he arrived at the home where his wife and three children were staying.

"I knocked on the door and I believe my daughter Grace opened the door first and she just stepped back for a moment," he said. "She didn't know how to react, but after a few seconds she was just all over me."

The emotional pendulum swung from the despair to "elation," Melissa said.

"There was a ring at the door bell and there he was," she said, still beaming at the memory. "I felt so relieved. It was amazing."

"This wasn't something my wife could do alone," Immanuel said. "I definitely needed to be there for support. Also, the kids, they needed a father figure around."

The Waldo Canyon fire charred more than 18,000 acres and destroyed 346 homes, making it the most destructive in the state's history. At the height of the fire, 32,000 Colorado residents evacuated their homes. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

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The Mganas have made a temporary home at a local hotel, where they spent the Fourth of July holiday. The couple's three children -- Kael, 10, Sofia, 5, and Grace, 2 -- splash around in the hotel pool while Melissa and Immanuel talk about their hope for the family's future.

"We just feel compelled to rebuild there," Melissa said of the lot where their home once stood.

"After 15 years of being together, we've weathered a lot of storms together and we just know how to get through things together," Immanuel said, putting his arm around his wife. "It's a new beginning for us."

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