This probably isn’t the post you were expecting from me in this Christmas season. If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you are probably aware that I experienced a housefire a few years ago. Today (Dec 23) is the 10 year anniversary of that event and I wanted to share a little about it.
The secretary paged me over the intercom. “Lisa, your ex is on the phone and he said it’s an emergency!” At once, numerous thoughts coursed through my mind, the foremost being that something was wrong with one of my four children, who were staying with him for the week.
I picked up the phone, “What is it?!”
“Lisa, I don’t know how to tell you this...”
“What? Just say it!”
“The house is on fire! It’s totaled!”
My mind quickly said, “Whew! The kids are ok. Oh my God! The house! Our cats!” I quickly gathered the pertinent details, slammed down the phone, ran to my bosses office and blurted out the scenario and ran from the office, got in my van and drove towards home. This couldn’t be happening! Things like this happen to other people! But no, I could see the column of smoke all the way from I-25 and Thornton Parkway and knew with certainty that it was happening to me.
I was so anxious to arrive, to see just how bad the devastation really was. I prayed, “Please let the kitties be ok. I don’t care about the rest of it, just let them be alive and well.” The sixteen mile drive from downtown Denver to my home in Broomfield was interminable. I -25 was frustrating. On most days everyone drives ten to twenty miles per hour over the speed limit. But on that day, the one day that I wanted speed, every car in every lane was doing the speed limit.
Finally, I rounded the corner to where I could see the house. The street was blocked by police cars and fire trucks. It looked like everyone in the entire neighborhood was watching from the sidewalks. There were news reporters and photographers. I was vaguely aware of a news helicopter hovering overhead. I parked the van and ran towards the house, aware that everyone was watching me.
“That’s my house!” I wailed at the nearest fireman. “We have two kitties! Please see if you can find them!” The fireman ran off to check. Another man came across the yard with my ex-husband. Thomas introduced himself as the Victim’s Advocate from the Broomfield Police Department. He was there to help me with whatever needed to be done. I already had a running list going through my mind of things I had to do.
I glanced at the house. Smoke was coming out of every window and the roof and firemen were entering and exiting the house in a continual stream. There wasn’t anything I could help with there so I made a decision to focus on things I could do, rather than stand there and get more distraught and depressed by watching the horrific event. Thomas and I went to the neighbors across the street to use the phone. I had to call my boss at the hospital to let her know I wouldn’t be able to teach childbirth class that night. Thomas called Eagle Hardware to tell them not to deliver the new washer and dryer that were to be delivered the next day. I filled out paperwork for the fire department and the Red Cross. Neighbors and strangers came by in a steady stream to offer sympathy, cash and clothing. Thomas kept track of the donations. A co-worker came by to see if I was ok and if I needed anything. I didn’t know what to tell him. I went outside and stood on the neighbors porch and watched for a bit. The Christmas lights hanging from the gutter and the wreath from the porch railing, looked nearly untouched. But there was a gaping hole in the roof and what was left of the garage was blackened.
It was two days before Christmas. Only days before it had been decided that the kids would spend the week before Christmas with their Father and the week after with me. It was a fortuitous decision in light of the events, meaning that none of them were home at the time of the fire and thus were all alive and well. It also meant that they each had a full suitcase of clothing and a few of their most precious possessions
My 17 year old daughter Jessie came up. I have no recollection of words spoken, but I do remember the hug. Now, for the first time, I heard my Jessie and her father, my ex-husband, Paul, tell just what had happened.. Paul was taking Jessie to get her Learner’s Permit to learn to drive and they had stopped at the house to pick up her birth certificate and other papers she needed. They pulled into the driveway. Paul opened the car door. “Phew! Those garbage cans really stink!”
As Jessie approached the house, she said, “Dad, why are the windows foggy?”
Before they realized what it was, Jessie had opened the door and the smoke began to billow out. In panic, they ran to several neighboring houses before they found someone home so that they could call 911. Then Paul made the panicked call to me at work.
Because they had heard one of the cats yowling, they went back to the house to see if they could get him out. Through the sliding door to the kitchen, they could see Snowball under the smoke, running against the door trying to find a way out. The door wouldn’t open so they went through the garage and unlocked the inside door to see if they could get Snowball that way. From that vantage point they could see flames on the kitchen floor. The entire time, they could hear Snowball. It didn’t do any good to call him because he was deaf as many white cats are. They went back to the sliding door and were able to break it, but Snowball ran the other way towards the inside door to the garage.
At that point, the house experienced a back draft, which means that the small smoldering fire now exploded through the house in a matter of seconds. The fire that had been invisible from outside the house, now erupted through the roof, doors and windows. The garage was instantly engulfed in flames and the large garage door was blown halfway down the driveway. Jessie and Paul could hear Snowball’s agony as he died in the flames. For Jessie, it was heart rending and traumatic. She was hysterical, screaming for her kitty, wanting to go to him. It took both Paul and a neighbor to restrain her. To this day, Paul will tell me nothing more of it, except to say that it was awful to hear both Snowballs agonizing cries and Jessie’s desperate wails. I can only imagine in horror what it must have been like.
When the first fire trucks arrived, the flames were in danger of setting the neighboring house on fire as well. They aimed their hoses at it and called for back up. The second station to arrive began to battle the blaze in the house. The Fire Chief told me later that when the crew entered the house, they exited immediately. The fire was so hot and so furious that it was too dangerous. With the arrival of the other stations, four altogether, they doused the house from the outside to dampen the fire and slow it down before they could enter it again. That’s about when I arrived on the scene.
I have three other children and they were in other locations at the time of the fire. Jonathan, my 19 year old, was at his job a few miles away. His friend Jeff went to tell him the house was on fire. He left his job and came straight away. Stephen, age 14 and Zach, age 12, were at their Dad’s playing computer games when a friend of theirs called and asked if they knew the house was on fire. Stephen tried to call me at work and left a panicked message on my answering machine.
Stephen then called his Grandpa, my father. My Father is a very precise, orderly person, calm, not easily flustered or upset. But the note he scribbled and left on the table for my Mother showed all the emotion and panic he felt. It said:
S... 3:30, I just got a call from Stephen, who is at Paul’s, and a friend had
called him that Lisa’s house was on fire. I’m going there right now to see
what’s happened. I’ll call as soon as I have a chance to see how things are.
As he raced to the scene, he passed my Mother, flagged her down and they came together. A newspaper photographer took a picture which shows Jessie’s face as she and my Mother hugged. It’s a face of overwhelming agony and grief. The picture also shows my Father looking towards the house in shock and disbelief.
As the afternoon and evening wore on, we were numbed by the overwhelming nature of the event. My sister in law picked up the two youngest boys and brought them so they could see what was happening. They stood and watched, but didn’t say much. Strangers came up to us and pressed twenty dollar bills into our hands. One lady, upon realizing that Jessie and I are both somewhat larger than the average person, came back with bags of clothing for us in our sizes. Others asked about the boys sizes and brought clothing for them. A neighbor offered us the use of their vacant house. The Westminster Fire Department gave us a large donation from their Fire Victim’s Fund. The support and caring of all these people was heartwarming in the midst of our trauma. The compassion from the community was to last for months.
A policewoman brought us the news that both cats had been found. Bob Cat, my large orange tabby and special friend had died from fumes while sleeping on my bed. He never woke up. Snowball was found in the remains of the garage. He had tried to escape through the open door but never made it. The news brought a cold gray blankness to my mind as I sat and tried to absorb the news. Our beloved kitties who had been purring and weaving through my legs that morning were gone forever and we never had the chance to say goodbye to them. They were such good friends and didn’t deserve their untimely deaths.
After the fire was out and the mop-up work was underway, a fireman came out of the house carrying a large black plastic tub. Inside were all the Christmas packages from under the tree. He had seen them and realized that they hadn’t been damaged by the heat or flames. The wrappings were sooty and wet, but when we unwrapped them, all but one gift was still ok.
In the coming months, the first thing people would ask was, “Did you lose your photographs?” Just a month previous, I had consolidated them which meant I was able to tell the Fire Chief where they were when he asked me. The firemen were able to bring me all but one small box of them. Everything was wet. My sister and her husband spent hours drying each and every one of them.
The evening drew to a close. I gave an interview to two of the newspaper reporters. The fire crew prepared for a night of watching the house for fear it would break out in flames again. The bystanders drifted away and then it was just our family, my closest friend and the neighbors who had so generously opened their home to us that day. With my children gathered together in a group hug, we tried to make sense of the day’s events. In the space of a few hours we had lost much. I told my kids not to worry, that it was just stuff and that stuff was replaceable. The important thing was that we were all alive and healthy.
In that moment, overwhelmed as we were, it was impossible to foresee the difficulties we would face during the following year. It would be a year of grieving, not only for our lost kitties, but for the loss of home, our comfort zone, for our safe place and refuge. Time is a patient healer and by the time Christmas approached the following year, we were able to see blessings we had been given. Our Christmas letter consisted of these lines:
Most of you are aware that on the 23rd of December 1999, our house caught fire and was severely damaged as were most of our possessions. While we lost our two dear kitties in the fire, we felt God’s hand on us and are thankful that none of us were home at the time of the fire. The community has been so supportive of us, in both encouragement and donations.
It seems appropriate during this holiday season to share with you some of the tremendous Blessings we have discovered in the years following the fire.
We have been blessed with Life.
To have the opportunity to truly live is a great and wonderful gift.
We have been blessed with Family.
To be surrounded by a loving and caring family is a gift beyond compare.
We have been blessed by Compassion and Generosity.
Our faith in humanity has been restored by the deep caring we have experienced at the hands of friends and strangers alike.
We have been blessed with New Opportunities.
We have learned that when life turns us inside out and upside down, that all is not lost, that new windows and doors will open to us.
We have been blessed with Abundance.
We have discovered that even when we have “nothing” by American standards, we still have more than the majority of the world.