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Fire changes things. Destroys. Creates. Transforms.
Think of metamorphic rocks, rocks such as gneiss, slate, quartzite, and marble. Think of transmutation of elements. Transmutation as illustrated by the old alchemical striving to turn lead, the base metal of Satan the Devil, into gold, the metal of Gods and kings, or modern nuclear reactions, explosions, and radioactive decay. One forgets among the unleashing of atomic demons the alchemists were more esoteric than literal as they sought to transform their very souls.
Sometimes those who spend lifetimes in search of such divine gifts never obtain their goals.
Sometimes those who don’t seek these Gifts of Fire end up in flames anyway.
Sometimes life spins out of control.
It feels that way at times. Certainly within our minds. Even if Life goes on until Dead.
Jeff Shushan, a brilliant and insightful psychotherapist Kristina and I worked with off and on through the latter part of 2010 into 2011, used the term “derailed.” An unexpected and traumatic event occurs. It is a life-changing event. Circumstances feel overwhelming and throw people off course. Yes, you can be alert, awake, aware, present, mindful, and choose to respond rather than react. Still, to full heal one must take time to grieve, to reassess, to determine what steps to take next and in what direction, with whom, and how.
My house burned down on the morning of Saturday, March 20, 2010. We lost almost everything, “we” being a post-double divorce blended family with my wife Kristina and our three daughters from prior marriages. Fortunately no one was burned or injured in anyway. Thankfully no one was killed in what the fire fighters called “a killer fire.”
But we lost the majority of our belongings. They included personal possessions I’d inherited from my deceased parents, grandparents, and other relatives and had trucked 3,000 miles out to Washington State all the way from Virginia. They included many items Kristina had inherited from both of her grandmothers, some going back to pre-World War Japan. In that one house in Edmonds.
One example of what we encountered was the stonewalling over various insurance policies regarding art. We discovered Kristina’s three limited edition Peter Lik photographs, big enormous beautiful ones in magnificent frames, had grown in value from a combined $5-6,000 to around $250-275,000. Peter Lik is a phenomenal landscape photographer from Australia whose dynamic landscape perspectives are world famous.
We were unable to secure any replacement or reimbursement for those photos from either our insurance company or the Board of Directors of Peter Lik’s enterprise. Kristina had purchased the three nature portraits at the Las Vegas Gallery on a business trip back in better days, and they were shipped to California to be framed. The gallery and framing staff went to bat on our behalf, but the Directors, while sympathetic, refused.
The Board members were adamant policy must be followed exactly as stated. In our case that meant a clearly identifiable fragment of each photograph must be provided from the ruins of the fire. Not a surviving section of frame or matting, but a recognizable piece of each individual actual photograph print must have survived the disaster. The Board was more than willing to replace the pictures and sell them at current market value in a Peter Lik gallery. The gallery would keep 10% from the proceeds of the sales of the three individual giant photos, and we the rest. Turns out, too, one was no longer available as those editions were all sold out, but we would be reimbursed a certain percentage. The gallery staff Kristina spoke with felt apologetic, baffled, even embarrassed by their Board’s unwavering insistence on upholding company policy without any exception whatsoever.
Photos provided from Morgan’s birthday party Friday evening clearly showed “Tranquility,” a stainless steel-framed Peter Lik photo of water cascading in dripping sheets down incandescent-green, mossy rock into rushing blue-white water, now valued at about $150,000, produced zero results for it was possible those photos could’ve been removed, stolen, or safely stashed with criminal intent to defraud Peter Lik’s business prior to the inferno.
Aargh! We felt outraged…and we understood. I’m only an amateur photographer, but art thievery and scams are unfortunately serious issues. Frustrated, I did go back to the ruins to search in vain for any evidence of the photos, but not even the walls remained. Nothing but heaps of wet, stinking ash. I was tempted to mail a box of ashes to the Board as a protest, but felt such a move was merely petty peevishness and unnecessarily inflammatory.
So far there are no lawsuits flying and we continue to work things out with our insurance company. A small number of items survived in the garage, which was the least damaged part of the house. Our two cars survived simply because they weren’t there. It was a horrible time. We moved five times through temporary housing until we settled down in a rental in early June 2010. We were all stressed out and some of us had nightmares. One day all I had to wear was women’s clothes.
We were humbled and awed by the generosity of many people including strangers. People gave us money, gift cards, clothes, food, utensils, pots and pans, and furniture. Lots of furniture. You should see our house now. It’s a crazy quilt of stuff. And it works.
This fire was Initiation. Although into what we’re still discovering. We thought we would bounce back fully by now. Oh no. People who have survived catastrophic house fires say it takes months, even years, yes, years! … to get over the losses. Thank goodness it was in Washington State in the American Pacific Northwest and not in a remote place or an impoverished, war-torn developing country. We have much to be grateful for. And we are grateful. We’ve maintained our sense of humor, though sometimes it’s tough. People were very generous in many ways. It all felt so humbling to allow our selves to receive after being such givers in the past.
Morgan Hannah, my oldest daughter had celebrated her 16th birthday the night before and had a number of girl friends over for a slumber party. It was a Harry Potter celebration reveling in the adventures of Harry, Ron, & Hermione against Lord Voldemort at Hogwarts and elsewhere. Seven or eight of these Harry Potter fans were still home with Morgan late Saturday morning when they noticed smoke rolling out from the heat vents and up from the stairs below.
They were lounging around playing games of chess and staring out through the big, glass sliding doors at Puget Sound and the snowy Olympics. My wife and I had just left about 11:00 am to run errands; she to the vet and me to pick up the two youngest girls from their own sleepover parties elsewhere. At first the teenagers thought it must be one of them burning something on the stove. But no, no one was even boiling water for tea. The stove was turned off. The last chess game was left unfinished.
Thick, toxic smoke rapidly filled the house. These kids couldn’t even get out the front door. So they dashed out the sliding glass doors onto the back deck almost one story up, the one facing west toward the Salish Sea and the Olympic Mountains. Terrified, they jumped off into ferns and bushes. Many of them were in underwear and tee shirts or in pajamas. Some were barefoot. Some of them felt compelled to race down the stairwell from which a plume of boiling smoke rose. They had hundreds, even thousands of dollars of belongings down there where they had spent Friday night. Morgan stopped them. She shouted “No!” and insisted everyone must get out now, right now, and to follow her. NOW!
The fire was catastrophic. The whole structure was in flames in less than a half-hour. It was a beautiful, model solar energy home designed and built by local but now-deceased architects. Their two sons owned it. It was a two-story structure almost 4,000 square feet built on the edge of a bluff looking out down a long, wooded ravine toward the Salish Sea and the Olympic Mountains beyond. After losing our other two homes in the Recession we had hoped to eventually buy this house. Of course, that didn’t, couldn’t happen.
From a home office point of view our library was destroyed. Our computers were melted. A friend of mine did extract the hard drives from 3 of them and managed to save most of the data. I cracked open my melted Nikon, extracted the memory card, and happily discovered almost 800 photos on there. Now we back up “into the Cloud.” We lost almost a half-million dollars of personal possessions. Much of that were items Kristina and I had purchased over the years, but most of it was the accumulated wealth of generations from our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and many aunts and uncles and even great-aunts and uncles. For the most part we lived frugally. Our cars were old, basic brands, a blue Ford Taurus wagon and a white Dodge Caravan, and all paid off. Most of our vacations were local camping trips in the Pacific Northwest.
A lavish but old Shin Buddhist shrine from my wife’s Japanese side of the family vanished in the fire. This personal, household shrine, called a Butsudan, dated from Japan’s Meiji Restoration Period. It was a rich black lacquered box whose doors opened to revealed layers of ornate, gold-leaf artwork and carvings reflective of Japanese Shin Buddhism of the Meiji era. Along with an accompanying bronze temple bell/singing bowl and an old cherry wood tea box, the whole set-up was valued at about $12,000.
I also had many family heirlooms and furniture from parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and various aunts, uncles, and great-aunts-and-uncles from both sides of my family from Virginia and the Carolinas. We had no idea how much most of our possessions were worth until we began looking them up. A beautiful but wobbly, wooden table stand from my grandmother’s with lion’s paw feet, for example, was over $3,000. My fancy wooden chess set, an expensive birthday present to me from all my “ladybugs” was burned up along with the little marble-top wooden lyre stand I got from my mom who inherited from her mother.
Photography was a serious hobby of mine, so most of my photographs and slides, tens of many thousands of them, are gone forever. Among them were pictures from my thruhike of the Appalachian Trail with Gwen, my NOLS mountaineering course, many whitewater kayaking adventures, an NOC river trip down the Rio Grande, rock climbing and mountaineering trips, and explorations of Southwestern deserts. Photos of the women I’ve loved and best friends from different eras of my life…incinerated.
Baby books; mine, my parents, and those of my children, gone forever. Photos and slides of my children as babies and toddlers – vanished. High school and college yearbooks, gone forever. I was also the family historian, so I’d accumulated boxes and boxes of archives from family members back East. Most of these old papers disappeared in the flames and smoke forever.
Miraculously some survived, such as the contents of the old Bass Family Bible Box. The Bass Family Bible Box was highly valued by my family; it was essentially a Protestant Christian version of sacred relics. The wooden box itself was too burned up to keep, and many of the contents charred and singed, but the bulk of those old family papers and the enormous, ancient-feeling leather-bound Holy Bible with gold-leave pages etched with the names and dates of long-ago relatives etched in fine penmanship survived.
Our family was woefully underinsured. It was complicated by overlapping real estate transitions and by misleading information from a particular agent in over his head. We’ll probably just receive a tiny fraction of the true value of what we lost after the insurance company depreciates and devalues our possessions. After all, insurance companies are private businesses that must generate profits to survive and thrive. Standing inside the glass and steel complexes of our insurance company watched by security guards generated a strange feeling as we see how pooled funds were spent.
Certain officials within the company were kind, compassionate, and generous in serving us, in fact all but one were sympathetic and expressed sadness … and while those depth of human connections were and still are greatly appreciated they’re not enough. I encourage everyone to video record all your possessions and store it offsite. Don’t waste time writing down everything. It’ll take forever and you won’t do it.
We are still recovering. And still reeling from prior disasters. Furthermore, the aggregate of international companies my wife and I once worked for as self-employed independent contractors crashed in the recession back in late 2007-early 2008. Not only did we lost our high-paying positions, but to our horror all our savings and investments in this venture. We were shocked to discover that two men high up in the network allegedly embezzled almost two billion dollars from over 3,000 people. Greed got the better hand within an alternative structure designed to allow middle and working class families to pool resources to gain access to sophisticated financial structures. We were all defrauded. Including those of us who worked there. It was outrageous, embarrassing, and gut wrenching.
These two monsters are now in jail, but the money seems gone as it was likely spent, stashed offshore, or hidden in Central and South America. We don’t know what actually happened or if we’ll ever see any of it again. The dominoes tumbled. We were unable to find high-paying positions although I did pick up a part-time retail job and some small free-lance writing projects. Kristina worked as a business coach and consultant, but it was very intermittent. As our home near Lake Wenatchee slid into foreclosure and then our home in North Seattle, we entered into a tedious short-sale process that finally completed this August of 2010. We moved to Edmonds, and then the fire broke out that Saturday morning. We felt we were drowning.
The fire was estimated to be at least 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit at times because the nails remain straight. This meant the flames were so hot it burned the wood right off the nails faster than the nails could sag beneath the weight of burning wood. Investigators determined it most likely appeared to have been faulty wires in the wall downstairs in my oldest daughter’s bedroom or maybe the wires from an outlet in the same wall. Looked as if old aluminum wires separated from copper, they arced, sparked, and set the wood afire. The lack of sheetrock facilitated the spread of the flames. Nor did the fire alarms go off at first as the smoke rolled out. The fire fighters and the investigators mused that if it had happened in the middle of the night there certainly would’ve been fatalities. And I’m sure I would have been one of them as it would’ve been my nature to rush into the fire and fight it. But the toxic smoke would’ve taken us out first, it was explained to us.
The Edmonds Fire Marshal was a kind man who persisted in interviewing us, our daughters, especially Morgan, and Morgan’s friends who were at the party. One private investigator for one of several insurance companies prying through the rubble for clues also interviewed us repeatedly. We considered him rude, disrespectful, and bereft of any social grace. He kept insinuating Morgan and her buddies were smoking cigarettes, smoking dope, burning candles, burning incense, playing with matches, using a space heater, dancing foolishly with sparklers, or whatever. They declared over and over again with a mix of meekness, firmness, and fed-upness they did NONE of those things.
Initially there were reports the furnace had exploded and caused the fire, but after people were able to get down inside the basement area the furnace appeared fine. So it wasn’t the furnace. There was also a possibility the aging solar energy system, which had caused problems for us and the prior tenants, had malfunctioned and started the fire. So much smoke had been piped through the ventilation system of the building. But it wasn’t the solar energy system either.
There was absolutely no arson, negligence, abuse, or misuse. The fire was ultimately determined to be an unfortunate, “catastrophic accident.” The lingo I heard among the firefighters on site, however, was this disaster was a “killer fire.” With so many people in the house it could’ve easily been a terrible tragedy with multiple funerals, any survivors in hospital burn units, and litigation by every parent.
As it was it took over 30 firefighters from Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mukilteo, and maybe Shoreline responding to a two-alarm fire. We were there only three months. We rented the house in November 2009 for December 1st. While we moved in few carloads of boxes over the first two weeks, the big move with all our combined belongings from two lost homes and our relatives occurred on December 20, 2009. Three months later, on March 20, 2010, the Edmonds home burned.
The fire was the latest in a series of crushing hammer blows to our family. We move on anyway. In working with a therapist and counselor we became familiar with the term “derailment.” We were derailed by the loss of our jobs, our savings, our homes, and especially by that fire and the constant moving around afterwards. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
Now my wife’s mother is moving into our temporary rental house in North Seattle with us. The bank foreclosed on her condo, declined the offers from a short-sale attempt, and got zero offers at an auction. My mother-in-law had once retired early, thrived on a frugal lifestyle, and was to a degree financially free. Yet with the loss of her funds in the same embezzlement that hit us she found herself looking for work with little success and is now in dire straights. So another BAM! And we have to maintain our wits about us, laugh at all the funny things around in, appreciate our friends and family, and remember that our glasses are at least half-full and certainly not empty.
Kristina and I had created a post-double divorce blended family. We’ve been together since December 1, 2001. We began living together soon afterwards, became engaged in November 2005, privately married ourselves in May 2007, and finally, legally wedded in an outdoor ceremony with our community on July 7, 2009. Kurt Treftz, my best man, remarked how in the midst of losing so much during this Recession we were courageous enough to get married anyway. Anyway! The Fire proved a hard blow, however, and still we managed to grieve and move forward anyway. Anyway.
My apologies for the impact all of this has had on my blogging here [P.S. referring to my two older Blogger blogs]. It’s taking me for longer to get back up on my feet than I thought. I also have a lot of train track to rebuild before even getting back on it, too. It’s going to take time. We have plenty of that. We hope. There’s much to do, much to be grateful for, much to still laugh about, life to live for with all its work and play. Aye, indeed, tears are healing, laugher uplifts our spirits, and life goes on for us the living. Thank you.
William Dudley Bass
1 October 2010
Revised and reposted 12 February 2012
NOTE: An earlier form was first published on a temporary community help website, http://bassfamilysupport.ning.com, in late March 2010. Then it was revised and reposted as “Derailed” on my older current affairs blog At the Brink with William Dudley Bass, on 1 October 2010 at: http://atthebrinkwithwilliamdudleybass.blogspot.com/2010/10/derailed.html. It was also jointly published on my autobiographical blog Cultivate and Harvest on the same date at: http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2010/10/derailed.html. It has since been revised, updated, and re-published here this February 2012. Thank you.
Copyright © 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.