Sunday, August 10, 2008

Andy's Too Long, Much Anticipated If Rarely Read Fire Story

Hunt Fire – Folsom, CA, May 26, 2008

I felt I should take a few minutes this Sunday afternoon, June 8, 2008, to reflect on the circumstances regarding the fire which destroyed our home and most of its contents this past Memorial Day.

The day was a no-pressure holiday: one wherein Charlene and I had planned no particular activities but were content to just kick back and do some housework, visit Charlene’s sister’s son and perhaps go to a movie. Elizabeth and Brian and their babies, Logan (4) and Brodie (2) left early for a Bell Pest Control company barbeque in Wilton. Charlie awoke uncharacteristically early, before 10:00 AM to have breakfast with a friend and was not expected to return anytime in particular. Mariah awoke mid morning and was engaged in some activities around the house.

I chose that day to thoroughly clean my office, also known as the computer room, and to rearrange things to make it more “ergonomic.” The room is used to do my moonlighting work, mostly structural calculations and marking up house plans and is used by Elizabeth to search for a potential home on the internet, etc. While she does, the boys play there and get pretty messy. I can get messy too, printing out hundred of pages of calculations and discarding quite a few that are incorrect. I have been digitizing family photos for several years in that room: first my father’s slide collection, Charlene’s mother’s and father’s snapshots and my father’s mission photo albums. I had acquired the entire Austin and Mildred Hunt and Roland and Carol Rhodes photo collection, including the Rhodes’ home movies. All of the originals were kept in that room.

Charlene will have to tell you what she was doing throughout the earlier part of the day as I was preoccupied with the task at hand. Mariah was in and out of the house, and was playing the piano at one point (Chopin or Debussy) and doing whatever 19-year-old women do which, later on, included a short bike ride.

By nature I am adverse to throwing away anything of the slightest value, due probably to my being raised by parents who survived the Great Depression. I also derive great pleasure from fixing things that are broken and making old things new. So, the day of the fire, I set out to fix a computer monitor swivel stand, a part of which had broken and was made of plastic, although the rest of the stand was made of steel. I knew I could find a suitable steel nut to replace its function, but I needed part of the broken plastic device to serve as a spacer to make the devise work properly. It required grinding the uneven broken part on my bench grinder to make it work suitably.

That bench grinder was on the end of my work bench, downstairs, in the back corner of the garage. It was very old when I got it at a garage sale and I had used it for 18 plus years. It had shorted and even sparked and smoked a little, lately, and I was determined to get rid of it: soon. But, on occasion like this, when I needed to use it, it kept working despite its age and electrical maladies. It worked on this day and I completed the task successfully. I had plugged the grinder into a portable, duplex, switchable outlet that I had assembled with a steel fourplex junction box and 12 gauge romex wire (very safe). Having switched off the grinder, I soon found the right replacement nut, returned upstairs to my office and successfully reconstructed the swiveling monitor stand.

I had forgotten to eat lunch and it was nearly two o’clock and I yelled this report to Charlene. She gave some response (I couldn’t make out her response because she has lately taken up the habit of mumbling, in spite of the fact that I am deaf in one ear. Either that or I can’t remember her response). I fixed a minimal lunch (I think peanut butter toast and milk, and maybe a piece of See’s candy) while I relaxed a minute, then I went back to work.

I decided to save some space in the office by reorganizing: moving one of my two computers, placing one on top of the other, but I realized that I needed to place a board on top of the lower one for stability. I searched the garage and its confines for the right board, finally finding an old, weathered oak drawer front in the wood pile outside. The lacquer finish was weathered badly and the board warped. I noticed a belt sander that Charlie brought home a few years ago. I had never used it before, but Charlie evidently had fairly recently, because it had a new sanding belt on it. I plugged the sander into the hot side of my electrical outlet device.

When the drawer front reached my very moderate quality requirement, I turned off the sander and placed it on my work bench, right in front of my very old bench grinder. For an instant I smelled electrical wiring burning, a smell that comes, at times, when I use a very old drill motor. I thought that, perhaps the wiring might be going bad or the brushes. But it was now turned off. Then I marched upstairs to continue to reorganize. This required quite a bit of unplugging and plugging. I stacked the two computers, moved the printer and it’s chord over closer to my chair. Then, with the room straightened and vacuumed, everything looked and felt neat and comfortable and the room was as clean as it had ever been. I was quite satisfied.

I went downstairs for no good reason, perhaps to get a drink of water. Downstairs I smelled the faint odor of paper burning. The clothes dryer was running. It had been squealing for a few weeks, due to a bearing going out and I expected that some lint was smoldering inside. I always wait until a dryer completely stops functioning before I fix it, even when the noise is so loud that you cannot hear someone talking right next to you, as was the case. But, in spite of the noise, the darn thing wouldn’t stop working and I had plenty else to do.

I opened the dryer door and noted the clothes were still damp: nothing burning there. I pulled the dryer away from the wall to see if there was anything going on with the exhaust hose. Nope. As I pushed the dryer back in place, smoke started pouring in around the door to the garage right beside me. It was completely out of context. I opened the door and was astounded to see that the whole of the garage was full of smoke: black smoke from the top down to waist high and gray smoke to the floor. I could make out no objects, and then I saw large orange flames to the left licking out from the vicinity of the work bench. I felt no heat, nor did I inhale any smoke. I think I began experiencing the phenomenon of perceiving things in slow motion (probably an effect of adrenalin). My garage was on fire and the fire was already out of control!

I closed the door and hurried to the kitchen phone. It was dead. “Someone probably left it off the cradle,” I thought. Smoke alarms started sounding one by one. As I hurried to the living room phone, I called out several times “Charlene, call 911, our house is on fire,” but there was no response. I reasoned that Charlene was out doing errands, or she would have responded. The living room phone was dead too! The Wrens, next door, were out of town. I felt there wasn’t currently an immediate threat to the house, only the garage. I ran to the other next-door neighbor to call 911, and as I passed in front of my garage, I noticed that the flames were eating through the garage door, the plastic melting as it progressed. I rang the doorbell. I saw the young husband inside but he didn’t come to the door immediately. “Why doesn’t he respond?” I thought. When he finally did come, I said, with conviction “My house is on fire. Please call 911.” He said he would. Then I heard Charlene screaming!

She was screaming hysterically while running out to the street “Help me, help me. My husband is on fire in the garage. Please help me, my house is burning. My husband is in the garage. He’ll be killed. Please help me.” Later Charlene’s friend, who lives two blocks away, as the crow flies, said she heard Charlene’s screams from her home. As I turned to go to her and comfort her, dozens of neighbors were streaming up the street. Smoke was now billowing out of the house and out the front door, which we left open. Several neighbors grabbed Charlene and she collapsed in their arms. When she saw me and determined that I was alive and well, she was relieved, but she continued in a hysterical state for several hours. Where was Mariah, where was Charlie, she asked. I reassured her they were out.

A neighbor, Tom, remarked that we needed to get the cars out of the driveway. There were four cars in the driveway, with Brian’s pest control truck and Charlie’s old Chevy S10 parked nearest the garage door. I opened my car and got out Charlene’s keys, handed them to neighbor Tom and asked him to drive out Charlene’s Honda while I drove out my Toyota. The truck keys were in the house somewhere. We had left the front door wide open and smoke was now billowing out the front door. For an instant I contemplated going in to search for the two truck keys that might be right on the entry table. I couldn’t even consider it for a moment.

Two or three brave neighbor men got harden hoses and tried to protect the two trucks and the nearer neighbor’s house. Flames were kind of leaping to the front of the trucks and, while at first they seemed to resist burning, they caught fire and really started burning. The men wisely gave up and retreated. Kind women of the neighborhood continued to comfort Charlene during the entire ordeal: giving her water, Nancy Witt taking off her own sandals and placing them on Charlene’s bare feet and all saying comforting and soothing words. One of the things Charlene repeated in her hysteria was “We don’t have enough insurance!” I tried to assure her we had adequate insurance. I was being honest, if hopeful, but I didn’t really know what that meant, then. I now am assured that we do, and I feel blessed that we unknowingly had superior coverage that will cover all costs and needs, completely.

As all the neighbors gathered around, family members and ward members, including our bishop, began to appear at the scene. I watched on silently, with my arms folded, as the fire progressed from the garage to the dining room, then through the living room and to the entry way. I stoically thought that I might even have to get upset. “Where are the firemen from the station that is 1 mile from my house?” I asked. Three or four Folsom police cars pulled up the street early on, and I thought, “Great, we have crowd control but no water.”

I waited with increasing disappointment as the fire raged on with no fire fighters in sight. Finally they came, 20 minutes or more after the initial call to 911. They seemed to be in no hurry as they rolled out hoses and got ready to fight the blaze. Another 8 minutes went by as the house was incinerated. They finally got water going about 25 minutes after I first detected the blaze. I was disappointed to say the least. Later on I learned that the crew was on another call that turned out to be a false alarm. I also heard that the hose the first crew had was not the right size. In time, six engines came to the fire. With the conflagration finally out, a female firefighter took me down the neighbor’s driveway to show me the back of the house, which was in far worse condition than the front that we had been watching. It was all black sticks and no siding or roof. Even most of the deck and all the junk underneath was burnt. She said “It is a Total Loss.”

Once they got going, with the house all but destroyed, they worked to contain the blaze and secure the perimeter. They fought the blaze with skill and teamwork until they were exhausted. The firefighters successfully contained the fire and prevented its spread to any neighboring house. They worked for hours to put out any remaining “hot spots.” One crew stayed all night to prevent the spread of fire and put out more hot spots the next day. They worked all the next day. I would have been very regretful had any of the neighbors houses burned.

After the fire was contained, the firefighters asked us if we wanted them to retrieve anything in particular from the burned structure. I will explain this further later.

During the conflagration, the Holden’s from our ward brought over water and a barbequed hamburger dinner. It was much appreciated, although Charlene could not eat. Bishop Kroff stayed at the scene all the first day making assignments, calling and checking on our insurance, calling ward members and following up on assignments. Sister Shaltes, Relief Society president, came and stayed throughout the fire fight and gave us use of her cell phone, which we gratefully used for the next two weeks. Tricia, David, their kids, David A. Boucher, Karen, mom, Grandma Carol, Ben and Sue Ellen and others came, some staying all day to give comfort and to extend love. Many neighbors offered us the use of their houses on the spot and offered to keep us as long as we needed. Such universal kindness I have never before witnessed and it has given me renewed faith in the inherent goodness of people.

Our most common inquiry is “What was the cause of the fire?” The City Fire Marshall and our insurance adjuster worked full time for over three days to determine the cause. They first had to eliminate arson. They determined that we were not behind on our mortgage payment, in financial distress, nor were we pyromaniacs. I told them about the sequence of events, where I first saw smoke and flames and about the dryer and the old belt sander. “What other electrical appliances were in that corner of the garage and were they plugged in?” they asked. There was the outside refrigerator that was plugged in and the 10” ad/dc TV was there, plugged in constantly for the last 8 years, or so. We would watch it as I cut my best friend, Craig Hamner’s hair every month or so.

Using a small excavator, they began to clear debris from the garage. They filled a 40-yard bin and dumped it, then filled it again. In the end, the Fire Marshall admitted that the cause of the fire was not going to be determinate. He felt the fire started near the work bench and that it was caused by an electrical short in either the belt sander or the portable TV. He said the latter is not an uncommon cause of spontaneous combustion in homes.

During the sifting process and their vigil in containing hot spots, the firefighters offered their assistance in retrieving things we considered valuable. Many trips were made into the now somewhat hazardous structure to bring back things as we began to recall them such as the entire Austin Hunt family and Roland Rhodes family photographic record. They came with stack after stack of slides in boxes and piles of soiled photo albums. A little jewelry was retrieved. When they finished their work and investigation, they quietly left. The insurance company had constructed a temporary chain link fence to secure the site complete with yellow caution tape and a small paper notice was placed at the front door declaring the structure condemned and unsafe to enter. It was, to an extent, unsafe.

Mine and Charlie’s computers were badly damaged, the plastic grotesquely misshapen, but the firemen had retrieved them for us. Their hard drives contained all the photos and slides I had digitized, representing hundreds of hours of painful TV watching (old movies on AMC) while I waited for the slide scanner to process 1500 slides, four at a time, and all of Charlene’s work keying in mom’s poetry. All my structural engineering spreadsheet files, including current projects would have to be painfully re-computed. All of Charlie’s original music was on his hard drive. The firemen had also retrieved my external backup hard drive. It looked like some kind of hardened road kill. The bishop enlisted his computer savvy son to see what he could do. He, Matt Kroff, turned them over to computer professional, John Cowley, Charlie’s computer guru and mentor and a previous ward member.

We were offered so many places to stay: in people’s homes who were going on vacation or on a mission. The Scotts offered their home while they went on sabbatical. But, we felt like being by ourselves in the evening, just to ponder, to get our bearings, to cuddle, to recover. Besides, the insurance company would pay for a hotel until we got a rental house. The rental house would be of equal size and one that would rent for a cost similar to our own. Bishop Kroff worked for three days, delegating to ward members who were real estate agents. Within a few days we had a letter indicating the comparable rental cost. Then a call came form the Wylers. Grant and Jeanine Wyler were living in the Folsom 3rd Ward, but Grant was working in Chico and commuting each weekend. His wife was keeping house in Folsom so she could stay close to the Folsom Temple where she served several times per week.

One day during a quiet moment in the temple, when she had time to ponder, Jeanine had a distinct impression, actually more of a voice directed her “If you won’t move, how can I bless you?” She immediately informed her husband that she was determined to rent the house, until it could be sold (during a better real estate market) and she was moving to be with him. She would commute to Folsom to serve at the temple once a week. Since they felt their decision was divinely guided, they felt that there may also be someone whose need for their house might also be providential. There was other interest shown, but when they got our call, they felt we were the ones whom God had determined should rent their home. It was just right for our needs, large enough for all eight of us and with a large outside concrete area and swimming pool that would be fun for the little boys. The rent was within the insurance coverage requirement.

When we came along, they had already moved out most of the furniture and put it in storage in Oroville, near where Grant was working. “May we use some of it?” we asked, specifying that we were only interested in items of furniture that they wouldn’t mind being slightly abused. They replied in the affirmative, so we rented a U-Haul (insurance pays for the cost of rental furniture and thus they paid for the cost) and drove to Paradise to move Grant’s and Jeanine’s bedroom set and then to Oroville to pick up the furniture, including four beds for the kids. Now we could comfortably move in.

We were still living in the hotel, then the residence inn while Grant and Jeanine finished moving out. I was daily visiting the burn site and retrieving items as people remembered items of sentimental value and where they had been in the house. The fire had burned diagonally from the lower right corner in the garage up through the garage attic and across the house diagonally. The least damaged rooms were Charlie’s bedroom and the bath next to it, which got smoke damage, heat and water, but no flames and the upstairs office/bedroom was the next least damaged. The house looked like the set for a horror film, everything being burnt or charred black and most things only barely recognizable with effort. On the floor there was between 6” and 3’ of wet, soggy debris throughout, consisting of a mixture of sheet rock, insulation and burnt wood and belongings. Food that was partially burned soon began to rot. You could see the sky from all areas but Charlie’s room and the downstairs bathroom and the roof tiles were amongst the debris on the floor or hung up in the remaining joists and rafters.

Before I entered any area of the burnt structure, I carefully inspected the structure above and below to determine if it were safe to enter. Several areas were obviously not safe, such as Mariah’s bedroom which had a gaping hole to the family room below. Other areas were damaged and charred but wood members were not burned through and the structure of the second floor appeared able to support the weight of a single person. As tiles fell from the roof during the conflagration, many lodged against each other at the ceiling joist level. As a civil engineer, experienced in wood structural design, I felt confident enough to venture to one area of the house then another, in all several dozen times.

I joyfully got many of my musical instruments out of the living room, except for the piano, which was burnt from the top down to the keyboard, a very choice full sized violin, the plastic recorders, the autoharp and my harmonicas: retrieved were the alto saxophone, two clarinets, one flute (luckily, Sue Anglesey had borrowed my other flute), and the coronet. Their cases were all charred badly, two even burned through, but the cases had protected the contents: all the instruments were clean and seem to be intact.

As the days went on, I became more emboldened about searching through parts of the house. Most critical was the possibility of heavy concrete tiles falling from above. Under 2 feet of debris in the family room I found all the kid’s baby books. As a child, I used to love my baby book. Being the 5th of 10 children, mine was barren of photos and only had a few entries but the printed pictures were interesting to me as a child for some reason. Charlene, on the other hand had made an almanac for each child. Additional pages and items made each book two inches wider a book than the binding would normally allow.

I was able to retrieve my old engineering books with their newly blackened covers and page edges. They were 35 years old, out of print, but I know them and understand them. To try to master current textbooks would be time-consuming and too much work.

Charlene sent me on a couple of missions into the abyss to seek her large every day purse containing the $200 Honda key, her, “do not copy” school keys, her 5” thick wallet filled with stuff, her new $300 glasses, and to find her special jewelry made by Bernarr and Musi, and a couple of nice pieces of costume jewelry I had gotten for her. The master bedroom was a charred wasteland. My c-pap machine by the bed was all goobered, my scriptures were not totally crispy, but were blackened and deformed and a dozen good books, my current stash, by the bed were ash. She advised that her purse was right next to the bed on the far side, her side. I gingerly entered the bedroom upstairs and began to scape away the burnt debris. I cleared an 8” wide 12” deep trench. No Purse. Then I fanned out a little farther away and felt something crisp with loops! Under 18” of soggy stuff was the remains of the purse! The purse was a pathetic piece of burnt leather! The toasty brown Honda key was still hooked to the handle with a climber's clip, where she always kept it. Inside, under the top few inches of warped pens and charred notepads, everything else was pretty good. Her glasses were there, perfect inside the nice case, her wallet was soaked but intact and her school keys were fine.

The next day I went for the jewelry. I had to pry off the burnt drawer front that she had specified. The contents smelled like smoked salmon, but were otherwise perfect, including most of Bernarr’s and Musi’s gifts. The closet, which was otherwise totaled, yielded the pin of rhinestone made to look like a bunch of strawberries I had given Charlene on a past anniversary.

Early on when the firefighters had asked if we needed them to retrieve anything, Elizabeth reluctantly asked if they could look for their tithing money. She indicated it was a wad of cash on the top of the dresser against the back wall of their bedroom. Other than the garage, Liz and Brian’s bedroom was the one of the worst spots. The roof was entirely gone, the ceiling sagging to the 5 foot level and the outside walls just a handful of charred studs. The fireman said that money rarely survives a fire when it is out in the open like that, that the fire burns from the attic down, so paper goods on top a dresser will not survive, but he cheerfully offered to look anyway. He soon returned with a quizzical expression and carrying a bowl in his two hands like an offering. The money was there, completely encased in wax. The young couple had placed their $800 tithing (3 or 4 months worth) in a dish, then had, absentmindedly, laid a plastic bag of votive candles on top. The money was perfectly preserved in wax and Brian was able to peel apart all the bills without even melting the wax. Charlene’s mom , Carol Rhodes, commented “The Lord wasn’t going to let His money burn.” Rather, I believe He didn’t find it necessary for Brian and Liz to have to save their tithing money twice.

Then there is the cat, Princess. It’s not a name, it’s a title. Someone said they saw her fluffy long gray fur flash out the door during the conflagration, but she was no where to be found. After a week or so, we began to believe she had not made it. She was dear to Charlene, Charlie and Mariah, and the rest of us tolerated her quite well. There was a rumor out there that she was spotted, but not a sign. Then, one late night Charlie was out at the house about 2:00AM and she showed up. We were in the hotel and couldn’t stow her away there, so we left food and she came each evening. We found her sleeping in the burnt house in a large charred basket. She was really defensive and didn’t look too well. As soon as we moved into the rental house we transported her there. That was traumatic! She moaned and groaned as only a cat can the whole way as Charlene held her wrapped in a bath towel and continued to express suicide prevention lingo. She was skittish, to say the least when we got her to the rental. She escaped once or twice in her frenetic state but came back within 24 hours. Then, one day she left and didn’t return, not for a week. I couldn’t bear to imagine what had happened, but we all agreed, it was over for the little empress. Then one night after midnight, Elizabeth knocked on our bedroom door to announce “She’s back.” Covered with burrs, she had obviously enjoyed the nature area a quarter mile away. Then, she had probably run out of easy game and came back for a square meal.

I started this story almost two months ago. We are now nearly ready to submit plans for reconstruction to obtain a building permit. There have been many miracles associated with this event. The fire has been more difficult for Charlene, Charlie and Mariah, probably because they are the most emotionally attached to their home: Charlene as the mother and homemaker, and Charlie and Mariah because they have lived there most of their lives, including 16 developmental years. Those of us who have known several homes and are not as emotionally attached are less obviously affected, but are affected nonetheless. But the miracle of all being safe and well supersedes all else as the crowning miracle, the most tangible blessing. The photos and slides of three generations of two families, the baby books and recollections, musical instruments are all of this world and are all recorded in heaven using the ultimate technology. But to have one’s loved ones a little longer, to have more time to say “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” or “you’re good, Natalie,” to be able to make a few more memories and to bond once more with spirits in little bodies is the daily miracle we can no longer take entirely for granted.


Sienna said...

a very thorough and inspiring account of the events. it is amazing to see the lord's hand in an otherwise depressing situation. thanks for taking the time to share your story.

Pamela Palmer said...

i used the "your good Natalie" experience as an example in my primary class (4,5,6 year olds) of children settling an example for grown ups. I'm glad you got the story down. You're a gifted writer/story teller. I had already heard the told version but I still cried.

Jesse said...

Thanks Andy. It's nice to hear the whole story. Glad everyone is okay. A good reminder not to be too attached to stuff. We keep moving every few years, which keeps us from accumulating too much.

Karen said...

mom sat down and read every word. thank you again for providing the new computer. i so appreciate your story. "you're GOOD, andy!"