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The Fire: Aftermath

You don't know what you've got until it's gone... but you also realize what's important.

The Fire: Still Life with Soot
Still Life with Soot

Posted February 21, 2016

Why Show These Photos?

If you follow my photos on FB or Flickr regularly, you've gotten a little of this story. Before those of you who are new to this jump all over the idea of this blog post let me put your hearts at ease: I was invited to photograph the aftermath of this tragedy and write about it. Greg himself took me on a “tour” of the devastation.

Should you be interested in the details of the photography (such as camera settings) or just want a closer look, you can click on the photos and they will take you to that photo on flickr.com where you can view them at various sizes and see the details.

The Fire: Unlikely Tour Guide
Unlikely Tour Guide

What Happened?

On Oct. 5 Monday, between 5 and 5:30 PM, a fire was detected in the suburban home of my friends Greg and Marci. Greg was traveling on business and 6 hours away from home. Marci was home recovering from foot surgery and not able to move well.

The Fire: Like Beirut in the 1970's
Like Beirut in the 1970's

Investigators believe the fire broke out in the garage in Marci's car some time before that. Whatever the cause, it was not a sudden thing – instead it was more of a slow burn that gradually created large amounts of heat. The fire burned for a considerable period of time before the windows of the garage finally broke and provided a volume of air to the fire that allowed it to accelerate.

The Fire: Hot Car
Hot Car

If there was ever a good time for a fire, this would have to be it. At that time of the day people are coming and going from their homes, and folks are out walking dogs and so forth. Two different neighbors coming from different directions on the street noticed the fire and ran to the house.

Marci was not supposed to be walking much, and she needed crutches and even had a walker available for around the house. As she became aware of the fire though, some degree of panic must have set in. She did have the presence of mind to grab her cell phone despite what must have been a fog of urgency and adrenaline.

The Fire: New Bike Melted
New Bike

She was trying to get out the front door and it was a bad business, but the neighbors helped her get down the steps and away from the house. Their dog though, seemed overwhelmed by the noise, scents, and emotions it could sense around it – and in its confusion wanted to go back in the house to “safety”.

A neighbor went back and retrieved the dog but didn't get credit for it in the official news stories. The reporter covering for the local paper somehow got the idea that the paramedics that arrived later rescued the dog.

The Fire: The Flag, Untouced by the Flames
The Flag, Untouched

Meanwhile, Greg was driving and nearly at his destination in a place he was not familiar with. Marci tried to call Greg, but he ignored the call temporarily because he was just coming up to his exit and needed to pay attention to the GPS. So Marci calls Greg's sister to ask her for help and Greg's sister gets some friends nearby to go out to the fire.

Marci tried Greg again and didn't reach him so she sent Greg a text saying “911 emergency” to let him know that something was up. Greg got the text and called back to hear that their house was on fire.

The Fire: Old Bike Burned
Old Bike

The response by the fire companies has been described by some as “uncoordinated” but Greg feels the volunteer fire companies did the best with what they had considering that time of day creates all sorts of problems with traffic and availability of personnel.

In true “Murphy's Law” fashion, there were complications including problems getting a fire hydrant working, as well as downed power lines. The lines came into the house via the garage where the fire started and they were burned away before the fire companies could even set up. You can't stand around dumping water where live wires are down so serious firefighting had to wait until the line was shut down by the power company.

The Fire: Harley Graveyard
Harley Graveyard

At some point the neighbor's house also caught fire. Whether it was from the heat or some debris from the fire, or if the power lines somehow ignited it – the situation grew even worse.

But back to Greg's call to Marci: she assured him she was okay though she had hurt her foot and also that the dog was fine. Greg now called his sister, but his father was there and answered. Both his father and sister agreed to drop what they were doing and go help Marci.

Greg called his boss to inform him of the situation. His boss had also had a fire in the past, and since he lived in the area, he volunteered to go aid Marci. He told Greg not to worry about the job out there, but to head home. Greg had arrived at the hotel but instead of checking in he canceled his reservation and began the 6 hour trip home.  On the way he called his insurance company (Erie) to give them a heads up on the situation.

Meanwhile, the EMT's had arrived just as a matter of course since there were no reports of injuries. In significant pain, Marci was concerned for her foot fearing torn stitches or worse, so the EMT's decided she needed a trip to the emergency room. She ended up being there for four hours, but Greg's dad and sister were with her and even some neighbors.  The support was badly needed: waiting for hours in a hospital emergency room is never fun; but rendered even more miserable by the knowledge that your house is on fire.

Finally, the fire was extinguished before the entire house was consumed, but the south end of it was mostly gone and the garage a total loss including the car, two nice Harley Davidson motorcycles, tools, etc.

Greg saw the house for the first time that evening after the fire was out.  Fire trucks were still present.  A growing sense of shock and series of sleepless nights began.

The Fire: Scorched Seed
Scorched Seed

The Morning After

Next morning, police had left a message at the hospital to expect a visit to the house from a state fire inspector. The inspector was a State Trooper and was there that morning as promised with the task of determining the cause of the fire: arson or accidental. The town fire marshal also arrived and Greg signed an authorization for an investigation and was interviewed. Marci was staying and recovering with Greg's sister.

Wrapping One's Head Around It
Wrapping One's Head Around it

The dog that had been rescued from the house by a neighbor was staying with that neighbor. Greg saw a woman he didn't know walking two dogs and one of them was his. After he finished with the fire inspectors he caught up with her at the neighbor's house next door that had caught fire as well.

He was petting the dog and the woman remarked what a great dog he was and Greg told her he was taking him home. She replied that she was fine with taking care of it so he could leave it with her. Greg said, “But I'm under orders to bring the dog to Marci”. The neighbor didn't know him and asked who he was and Greg revealed that it was in fact his house that had burned and of course the neighbor released the dog to him. She was a sweet lady who stepped in where she was needed and took the job seriously. It seems to run in the family as it was her daughter who actually helped Marci escape the blaze.

Later the woman, who is on the auxiliary for the fire company, was very critical of the response by the authorities – mainly a lack of control by police in clearing the way for the fire trucks. Fires attract onlookers and onlookers often get in the way.

The Fire: The Music Room Piano
The Music Room Piano

Day Three: The Insurance Process Begins

When Greg had contacted Erie Insurance Company they told him there was nothing to do that night, but they'd get the ball rolling and be in touch the next day. True to their word they contacted Greg the day of the inspection and said they were coming out to sit down with them and explain what comes next. Most people naturally have never gone through this and the insurance company agent was very reassuring, helpful, and quick to respond.

Virtually all their clothes were lost along with other objects of day-to-day life most of us take for granted. When they met the agent he gave them a $20,000 check up front to get them on the road to recovery. Also he outlined what the process would be going forward. Greg said he and Marci were amazed to find out how good the insurance company was. As Greg put it, “I want to say we were 'in good hands' but I know that's Allstate's tag line. But we both felt from early on that we were with the right guys.”

The Fire: Mirror Mirror on the Wall...
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

A “loss inventory specialist” came, and the insurance company asked for a comprehensive list of what Greg and Marci say was there. Marci didn't have but one shoe because of the dressing and cast on her foot – so she didn't even have a pair of shoes and Greg had only what he was wearing plus a change of clothes for the overnight stay in Ohio.

The Fire: Marci's Other Shoe
Marci's Other Shoe

Erie started the process of finding them a rental home to use while the adjustment process proceeded and Greg and Marci made decisions about their future. As they replaced their things, they kept their receipts to submit as the process went on. The insurance company's clear view was that they were there to make their client “whole” as much as that was possible. Very commendable.

It took very little time to determine that the house and it's contents were a “total loss”. There were no vagaries concerning what could or could not be salvaged and how it would affect the payout.  The insurance company got them a hotel room while they found a rental property equivalent to their ruined home and even helped them rent a car to get them through.

The Fire: Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright...
Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

Moving On

After a while, an equivalent home for Greg and Marci to stay in was found. The insurance company paid for rental furniture even.

But a funny thing happened, one of the coincidences that I personally see as God's grace. When Greg bought this house he kept his old condominium as a rental property. The tenant there had a lease for a considerable time yet. Shortly before the fire the tenant had contacted Greg to have a discussion about breaking the lease. This was easily negotiated and Greg and Marci are now living in their old condo. Once again the furnishings are being provided by the insurance company.

The Fire: Portrait of a Clock
Portrait of a Clock

Greg spent considerable time looking for salvageable things. It wasn't so much the monetary value, but there were so many personal things.

Like me, Greg is a photographer on the side. Two of his three camera lenses survived but the camera did not. Greg had wisely bought “anything happens” insurance on his E-M10 camera and it was replaced due to water damage without charge by the store where he bought it. The lenses were professionally cleaned and brought back to life.

He tried to find the old photo albums in the basement fearing the flooding would destroy them and he brought them upstairs and covered them thinking them “safe” but subsequent bad weather managed to soak them. They peeled apart the photographs as best they could but some were just a loss. The negatives did better and many of the photos can be reproduced.

The digital photography is more problematic and the hard drives from his Apple iMac computer have been sent to recovery specialists.

Since my visit he saw even more he thinks I could have photographed but I wasn't able to get back. The house was condemned.

Greg's neighbors took up a collection for he and Marci as well as for the neighbor whose house was somewhat damaged. Despite the great neighbors, Greg and Marci have decided not to rebuild on that site. It's a hard decision to make no matter what you decide.

The Fire: Another Firewall
The Firewall

Emotional Rollercoaster

There are so many things happening emotionally at once.  Greg described some of them.

  • So many feelings are conflicting creating a sort of emotional dissonance

  • There is a gratitude to be alive but a sense that something of “you” has been lost

  • Sense of “sureness” and “security” very much diminished

  • You feel a bit lost, adrift, as if you've lost your “anchor”

  • Family friends rally around you

  • Even strangers want to provide comfort

  • People want to give you what they can, even if it's not what you need

The Fire: Lurkers in the Darkness
Lurkers in the Darkness

Even the “support” can wear thin as you try to be patient with well-wishers who tell you “everything happens for a reason”.  People like to find a meaning for everything.  But sometimes, like Freud's famous cigar retort, things just are what they are and don't have a “bigger” meaning. In fact, they are big enough just as they are.

You try to surround yourself with familiar things, but everything feels different when you're not in “your home”.

I once heard someone say that there is little emotional difference between what a rich man feels when his mansion burns and what a homeless man feels when the box he lives in is carted away with his things. Yes, the circumstances are different for sure – but we are all wired to some extent with a longing for “home”. We want a place that feels like it's ours and we belong there. We mourn when it is not there for us, all of us.

The Fire: Mood Music
Mood Music

Who we are at any one time is the intersection of our nature and our circumstances. When circumstances change radically we can actually feel like we don't know who we actually are. Even when the threat is not existential, it feels like it as we perceive that something has been lost of who we are.

But Greg said that for all the loss and hardship, the work of recovering and rebuilding, there is a very real perception that grows of what is truly important. When you have time to meditate on what happened and realize that the most important things are still with you – your life and that of your spouse – a different perspective develops that makes it at least a little easier to move forward.

After all, it is life itself and not its circumstances that are the most important thing.

The Fire: Martin is Dead
Martin is Dead

Exploring a Burned Home

Most of us who try to make art out of ruin have been in places which have seen the touch of time.  It is however unusual to visit a place you know that was such a part of people you know.  It was a wonderous thing that Greg asked me to come photograph his destroyed dwelling place.

The Fire: Marci's Laptop
Marci's Laptop

There's a sort of mouth-agape wonder to it. And a good many surprises as you find what the fire did and did not destroy. Sometimes it seems almost capricious as if the fire decided what it wanted and what it didn't.

The Fire: In and Out
Inside Out

In some instances, you find yourself scratching your head. In the scene below so much is burned and melted... but the case holding a Martin Guitar looks nearly untouched. However that's misleading as the guitar within did not survive the heat.  Interestingly, Martin was notified of the loss of one of their guitars and actually sent a representative to Marci's United Way workplace and presented her with a replacement.

Greg's camera and lenses were also in this room but somehow two of the lenses were no more than soot and water damaged and could be salvaged while other things in the same bag were totally ruined.

The Fire: The Library at Alexandria
The Library at Alexander

Survivor Surprises

Some rooms were so amazing to see. In the darkness formed by boarded and smoked windows ordinary objects take on extraordinary aspects. The opening shot of this blog post is a favorite of mine showing a nice decorative plant arrangement in the dining room looking like it's from “Beetlejuice” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. Such examples of things surviving the heat, smoke, and water are to me just astonishing.

Cabinets when opened often revealed nearly untouched objects within.

The Fire: Curious Curios
Curious Curios

A guitar in the darkness of what had been a living-room devoted to music and jam sessions survived tarnished, but unbroken.

The Fire: Miraculously Intact
Miraculously Intact

Greg is a fiddler as well as proficient at other instruments and is a bluegrass aficionado. His fiddle made it, or at least appears to have.

The Fire: Greg's Fiddle
Greg's Fiddle

Opening a very burned hutch in the devastated south end of the house reveals something surprising: tapes and DVD's that still work.

Mysterious Survivors
Mysterious Survivors

And the bedroom adjacent to the destroyed garage lost it's roof and most of it's contents – and yet somehow these bathrobes made it through all of it.

The Fire: Invincible Robes
Invincible Robes

Poignant Finds

Some things have quite an effect on one. They maintained a room for when their niece visits and thinking about possible tragedy here is a sad thing.

The Fire: Little Girl's Room
Little Girl's Room

How these stuffed toys made it is just another mystery. She probably doesn't want them in their new condition and they are without a home now.

The Fire: Refugees

While we were exploring the area around the little girl's room, I kept hearing what I thought were faint voices and pointed it out to Greg.

The Fire: Finding a Talking Toy
Finding a Talking Toy

It turned out to be a talking toy, completely buried under the debris, and plaintively calling out for interaction. If you click on the photo below it will take you to a video where you can hear it. Why it would speak when it did, which was not anything consistent, is yet another mystery – as is of course the fact that it still works!

A Voice from the Debris
A Voice from the Debris

In the severely damaged south bedroom was a jewelry cabinet. It survived a room that was otherwise devastated by flames – the same room where the bathrobes were.

The Fire: More that Made It
More Survivors

Untouched within it were heirloom wedding rings passed down to Marci.

The Fire: Marci's Family Rings
Marci's Family Rings

But not everything that “survived” was untouched. A wedding dress passed down to Marci through her family still retains its form – but will likely never be the same.

The Fire: Heirloom Wedding Dress
Heirloom Wedding Dress

The lesson for us all is that the things that really matter, independent of our circumstances, are the people we love. Greg and Marci are still with us, and in the grand sweep of existence, that is what is most important.

The Fire: Unbroken Hearts
Unbroken Hearts

“The four things that matter in life: 1) love 2) honesty 3) faith 4) courage.” ― Bill Butterworth

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