updated 10/6/2010 12:48:23 PM ET 2010-10-06T16:48:23

Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn't paid a $75 fee.

Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat. 

"They could have been saved if they had put water on it, but they didn't do it," Cranick told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.

The fire started when the Cranicks' grandson was burning trash near the family home. As it grew out of control, the Cranicks called 911, but the fire department from the nearby city of South Fulton would not respond.

"We wasn't on their list," he said the operators told him.

Cranick, who lives outside the city limits, admits he "forgot" to pay the annual $75 fee. The county does not have a county-wide firefighting service, but South Fulton offers fire coverage to rural residents for a fee.

Cranick says he told the operator he would pay whatever is necessary to have the fire put out.

His offer wasn't accepted, he said.

The fire fee policy dates back 20 or so years.

"Anybody that's not inside the city limits of South Fulton, it's a service we offer. Either they accept it or they don't," said South Fulton Mayor David Crocker.

The fire department's decision to let the home burn was "incredibly irresponsible," said the president of an association representing firefighters.

"Professional, career firefighters shouldn’t be forced to check a list before running out the door to see which homeowners have paid up," Harold Schaitberger, International Association of Fire Fighters president, said in a statement. "They get in their trucks and go."

Firefighters did eventually show up, but only to fight the fire on the neighboring property, whose owner had paid the fee.

Story: 'No pay, no spray' case: Firefighters 'threatened'

"They put water out on the fence line out here. They never said nothing to me. Never acknowledged. They stood out here and watched it burn," Cranick said.

South Fulton's mayor said that the fire department can't let homeowners pay the fee on the spot, because the only people who would pay would be those whose homes are on fire.

Cranick, who is now living in a trailer on his property, says his insurance policy will help cover some of his lost home.

"Insurance is going to pay for what money I had on the policy, looks like. But like everything else, I didn't have enough."

After the blaze, South Fulton police arrested one of Cranick's sons, Timothy Allen Cranick, on an aggravated assault charge, according to WPSD-TV, an NBC station in Paducah, Ky.

Police told WPSD that the younger Cranick attacked Fire Chief David Wilds at the firehouse because he was upset his father's house was allowed to burn.

WPSD-TV reported that Wilds was treated and released.

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Video: People step up to help Gene Cranick

  1. Closed captioning of: People step up to help Gene Cranick

    >>> good evening from new york. in both the small and big picture it represents the breakdown of government, hands-off, minimalist approach. an a la carte system that openly invites destruction in the short term and the deacconstruction in the long term. the home that was allowed to burn to the ground over a $75 fee not paid. now drawing the cheers of some conservatives, eager to defend the policy and blame the victims with local county authorities evidently unmoved by this, the home of gene and paulette cranick burning as firefighters watched because they failed to pay their $75 subscription fee. the obion budget committee of tennessee chose to expand the fire service , pay to spray. the decision was two years in the making and will not go into effect immediately. also not changed by recent events. meantime, the prince of too bad for you as well as other conservatives happily defending the system and explaining how that system worked exactly as intended.

    >> if you don't pay your $75 then that hurts the fire department . they can't use those resources and you would be sponging off of your neighbor's $75 if they put out your neighbor's house and you didn't pay for it. if your neighbor department pay for it, you it did, and they put out their house , your neighbor is sponging off of your $75. and as soon as they put out the fire of somebody who didn't pay the $75, no one will pay the $75.

    >> which, if true, is why government services should never be constructed to put people in these situations in the first place. not the homeowner, not the firefighter. back to the they got what they deserved chorus. daniel foster saying i have no problem with this kind of opt-in government in principle but forget the politics. what moral theory allows these firefighters to watch this house burn to the ground? good for you. and that was the compassionate entry. dan, you are 100% wrong, responded kevin williamson . the world is full of jerks, free loaders, and ingrates and the problems they create for themselves are their own. jonah goldberg noting how well the system works. here is the more important part of the story, letting the house burn, while i admit sad, will probably save more houses over the long haul. i know that if i opted out of the program before, i would be more likely to opt in now. no, that is not the important part of the story. indeed, when the fire chief was asked about the decision to expand pay to spray, he was at first diplomatic and then frank.

    >> i think it would be really effective. it's not the best solution. without a doubt the best is a fire tax. eliminate us having 911 or whoever to check to say are they covered or are they not covered? the last thing a firefighter wants to do is not be able to help when they'd like to.

    >> and what about the fire department 's proposal, one trying to achieve a local government solution tells the larger story about what government should be doing to protect its citizens. the obion county fire department presentation. the very proposal considered by those budgetary authorities before they decided to expand pay to spray, page five, purpose, to formally establish a countywide fire department which will provide quality fire protection and emergency response to all areas of obion cou county in a timely manner with no subscription fees or requirements for response. page four overview, no other emergency agency responds solely on a subscription basis. ability to pay basis or under the threat of not responding if you don't pay your bill. page six, explanation, it is becoming more difficult to convince municipal leaders that the mun icipal fire departments responding to calls outside the municipal boundaries and for which no compensation is guaranteed is just the right thing to do. the fire department presented five different funding solutions including one which would increase property taxes slightly for all residents or one that will include the monthly electric bills by $3, also presented a countywide fee of $ 116 for those living outside the municipalities. joining me now once more from outside where his home was gene cranick. we thank you again for your time tonight. i know it's hard to believe people could be that cold, but they are. how do you respond to those people who are saying today that you got what you deserved somehow?

    >> well, i respond to those people like this. the shoe is on the other foot, on their foot, and see what happens. it happens to anybody. i don't care. you forget things and i did. i suffered the consequences for it. i'm not a freeloader. i've worked all my life for everything i've got. and another thing about it, they have waived these fire fees before. they waived them at my son's house three years ago in it december. they waived them over on another road over here out of town. and saved the guy's house . i know they waived them before. so, therefore, they could have waived mine. i would have paid it. my neighbor offered to pay them. i don't know if it was $500 or $5,000 to spray the house down, put it out. but, no, they sprayed the fence.

    >> my understanding is you heard about the coverage on some other cable networks today about this, people who said it doesn't matter, that rule has to be enforced. what do you think about that point of view, the coverage on fox news, for instance?

    >> well, i say to those people that they don't know the whole story about everything and they shouldn't be judging people when they don't know what they're talking about.

    >> the idea that this has to -- that they had somehow gone in and put out the fire without you having paid, that would hurt the system, that would punish all the people that did pay, does that make any sense to you?

    >> no, it don't because i would have paid. i offered to pay. i told them i would pay whatever it took.

    >> from what we're gathering from looking into this today it looks like the firefighters do not like this system. the politicians apparently like this system. how do you respond to that disagreement between those two parties?

    >> well, i don't know but i did understand the man who was calling the shots on this fire told them not to put no water on it within half a mile of playing golf. he was playing golf right down here on the golf course within half a mile. that really tells you that they really care. no wonder we can't get any industry or anything in this little old town around. why should i want to put up a business or build a new home around when they're not going to do you -- treat you right? and another thing is, and i don't know whether i'm right or whether i'm wrong, i haven't researched it yet but part of my tax dollars comes back to this town, i think, for fire trucks and the personal things, they don't just use it for fire trucks or the police department or whatever. and i know for a fact they take their prisoners, when they built this new thing up here about $3.5 million and i understood it will supposed to have a jail in it but they don't. they take all their prisoners over to the county to union city to the county, so what do they even need all that up there for? they're not going to use it.

    >> that they could afford but your $75 they could not afford. let me ask you this, let me just see if there's something a little nicer to this story than we've told everybody about. i know you're living it and nothing is nice for you but what's the reaction of your neighbors to this? you mentioned your neighbor was willing to pay on the spot as you were as this fire was going on. has it generally been compassionate and neighborly?

    >> most everybody has been compassionate and neighborly and i talked to a guy from the city today, he lives up in the city, and he said he hated it. but that was the rule up there. he hated it that it happened. and the way it happened and everything. he hated it. i understood some of the firefighters went home and were sick. some of them even cried over it. i appreciate it.

    >> let me ask you one more and we'll let you go again with our thanks. what's next for you and the family?

    >> right now i don't know. we haven't talked. we have to wait until our insurance company comes around and says it's all right to clean up. and then we'll clean up and we'll go from there. will we build back now or later? we'll just have to make a decision later on this.

    >> all right.

    >> so we may not build back and then again we may build something. i don't have any idea.

    >> all right. we'll be in touch with you if we have your permission to do so and, again, in the interim --

    >> yes.

    >> thanks for your time and continued -- our continued best wishes in this terrible situation.