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The Fire: Part 1 of 3
Saturday 20 March 2010
One week ago our house burned down. It was traumatic. Thank goodness everyone is alive. No one got hurt. Not even the firefighters. But we lost just about everything else. And the response of our communities of family and friends from all around the world was and is deeply generous, much appreciated, and unexpectedly overwhelming.
We got uplifting responses not only from all over the Northwest but from folks from Japan to Norway, Virginia to California, New York to South Carolina, Alaska to Vermont, Mexico to Canada, Jordan, Turkey, Spain, Germany, Italy, China, Kentucky, Florida, Connecticut, North Carolina. Texas. Tennessee. Illinois. The list goes on. From Christians to Muslims to Atheists to Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Pagans. Amazing. We were reminded not only how lucky to be alive but we’re all part of one giant family of humanity sharing one small, beautiful planet. And, yes, the Internet was the primary tool facilitating such communications, especially Facebook.
Saturday 20 March 2010. It was 11:00 in the morning in Edmonds, Washington, a waterfront city north of Seattle noted for its small-town feel with lots of trees. It was an unusually warm and sunny day. Morgan, my oldest daughter, had recently turned 16, and we were hosting a post-birthday slumber party for about 12 of her friends. The celebrations began Friday evening after school and work. Her younger sisters, Kate, 11, and Talia, 7, were at their own sleepovers back in North Seattle. I left to drive down into Seattle to pick up Kate and Talia and bring them home while Kristina left to take our dog Jo to the vet. There were 8 teenage girls left in our home by then.
They’re great kids, these girls. We’re delighted Morgan had a great circle of fun, funny, artistic, and responsible friends. They were hanging out upstairs playing chess and preparing to cook breakfast. First they noticed a thin smoky haze and remarked how pretty the sunshine was. Then they realized it was smoke. Were pancakes burning on the stove? No, no fire from the stove. No one was even cooking. There were no candles, no incense, no smoking, none of that. Thick, toxic smoke rolled out of the heating vents and roiled up the stairs from the basement, our first floor. The smoke was so thick they couldn’t even get out the door.
A few kids wanted to run down and rescue items: shoes/boots/clothes/cell phones/iPods/sleeping bags/coats/birthday presents. It easily ran to about $1,000 a teenager, mindboggling for even us parents when we tallied it all up, and among our guests were twin sisters, so, yes, many wanted to race downstairs, just once, running just really, really fast, y’know…and Morgan took a stand.
“No!” she shouted. “We need to get out of here NOW! This way!”
They ran out to the west thru sliding glass doors onto the deck one story up and raced to the shallow side where they scrambled over the railing and jumped into the bushes. For once the “totally awesome” views of water and mountains were ignored. Many of Morgan’s friends were barefoot, in underwear, T-shirts, and pajamas, but all made it safely. No one was hurt. Morgan called 911 on Natalie’s cell phone, the only phone left in the group. They alerted some of the neighbors, as the fire could’ve spread next door. As a few of them were still sleeping in, being a Saturday morning, they expressed gratitude amid the terror. There is thick rain forest vegetation around the house and throughout the neighborhood. Thank goodness it was not a hot, dry August day with a breeze racing up from the open ravine below.
Moments after the girls jumped off the deck and scurried to safety the deck that enabled their escape collapsed in a tower of flames. If you look at the photo of our burning house, on the left side you’ll see the deck right before it breaks apart. The tower of fire is highest there. It was a matter of urgent timing, and Morgan and all her friends made it out alive.
Some including a writer for the local Edmonds paper called Morgan “a hero.” She was proud and embarrassed at the same time by such attention.
We had just moved to the north end of Edmonds from North Seattle in December 2009. Kristina and I were in the process of short-selling our two homes after enduring the hardships of the Recession. In short order we’d lost high-paying positions, discovered our investments had been embezzled, had little savings left, and soon defaulted on the mortgages. It felt like a train of polka-dotted dominos tumbling. Unaware of the biggest domino crash yet to come, we were both busy developing new careers.
In addition, I had a part-time job in retail sales at the Downtown Seattle REI Flagship Store. Our three daughters went to school back in Seattle and we switched off with our respective ex-spouses. We moved there for the peace and quiet and to hunker down and rebuild. This “new” Edmonds house was a gorgeous house built as a model solar energy home back in the Carter Administration. The owner’s parents were architects who built it in conjunction with the Bonneville Power Administration and the Carter government. It was a 4,000 square foot 2-story home built into the side of a hill near the top of a large ravine.
From the edge of the bluffs our rental home faced west to the Salish Sea and the Olympic Mountains in a stunning view framed by green conifers untarnished by power lines and telephone wires. Every day we gazed upon sailboats, supertankers, Navy ships, barges, and more slicing thru the waters beneath the craggy, snowy peaks of the Olympics or under silver-grey clouds rolling in from the Pacific.
Kristina would go outside on the deck almost daily to practice yoga while listening to the birds. This was a house built of glass and wood and shaped sort of like a giant teepee. We hoped we could eventually purchase it from the owner, assuming we could get back up on our feet as fast as we used to be able to.
The entire house blazed up in less than a half-hour, but took over 24 hours to put out the fire completely. The fire was a “killer fire,” and many “experts” expressed certainty that if it happened at night when everyone was asleep people would have died. Can you imagine the chaos and confusion of waking up in a burning house full of thick, toxic smoke?
I knew I would be among the dead. I’m one of those crazy fools who would run into the smoke to try and rescue people or at least throw a pot of water on the frakkin fire. I’m not one to blindly run into hot intense flames, but I’m sure the smoke would’ve overwhelmed me, and then the floors and roof would’ve buried me as they cave in from above.
At first the fire trucks raced the wrong way as our street dead-ended on the bluff then picked up in the ravine below, so the trucks had to back out to come back around the bluffs and up narrow, crooked streets lacing thru the neighborhood to the fire. Apparently the house number was a digit off.
The call came in from Morgan’s friend Natalie while I was stuck in heavy Seattle sunshine traffic, i.e. when the sun bursts forth everyone seems to go outside even if its just to go get stuck in traffic. Worse, I had to pee really badly. Real bad! When I got the call and understood what was happening my whole body went cold and numb. I felt contraction and expansion, constriction then explosion. I pulled off the street, raced into Meridian Park, and peed into the bushes. I had to go so bad I didn’t care who saw me. And I had been holding it so long and had to go so bad and knowing my house was ablaze it felt as if it took hours to empty my bladder. So anyone who did see me would’ve witnessed a middle-aged man cussing, babbling, and stomping his feet in a weird little urination dance.
Got Kate from her friend’s house in South Wallingford, left Talia with her friend’s family way across town in the Whittier part of Ballard, and called a number of people. I struggled to stay focused on purpose and had to pull upon all my trainings.
Finally after agonizing tries I got thru to Kristina at the vet’s over in Lynnwood. Amazing as she rarely answers her phone.
“Our house is on fire,” I croaked. “Go!” And she left the dog behind with the vet and flew home.
Raced back from Seattle. Kate kept petting me on the shoulder to calm down and breathe.
Police blocked off our whole neighborhood. It seemed dozens of fire trucks from different Snohomish County jurisdictions were there. Edmonds. Lynnwood. Mukilteo. Mountlake Terrace. Wow. Crews of over 30 fire fighters were highly organized to address specific tasks: preparing hoses, prepping oxygen tanks, fighting the fire, carrying heavy objects, taking photos, scribbling down notes, checking in with one another. The house had exploded and glass had blown out into the woods and bushes around the home. Flames would race up into the trees, still wet from winter, then drop back down to rise again. Boils of toxic smoke puffed up and stirred the air in a column of dark malevolence reportedly seen from many miles away.
American Red Cross volunteers were there to help us. We were numb and zombie-like. I struggled not to cry and appear composed, and tears would run down my twitched-up cheeks anyway. I’m just glad all the kids were safe. The ARC folks were methodical. There was a chaplain ministering to the teenage survivors and us. Another to get us focused on calling the insurance company, getting emergency funds, dealing with bureaucracy, lining up shelter, and to address what’s next. Others to run food and drinks to firefighters, police, and to us. And a bathroom!
One by one the parents of Morgan’s buddies arrived. They were shocked by the reality of our house still in flames and just relieved their “babies” were alive and safe. They had to walk in. The neighborhood had been barricaded by the Police for many blocks so even the neighbors freaking out over reports of a house burning down in their neighborhood and it might be theirs had to hike in. The firefighters had a large, crane-like machine extended out over the roof of our home. From the device a seemingly endless river of water gushed down through holes in the roof.
The landlord, an attorney from Seattle, came rushing over in shock. He was stricken to see his deceased parents’ home destroyed, but relieved and even delighted to see everyone so alive. Then he ran down the hill toward the firefighters.
I just wanted to throw myself down on the ground and cry like a baby. But I couldn’t. Not in front of my daughters and their freaked out friends. Not in front of burly firefighters and stunned neighbors. Not in front of my dazed wife. When I finally had time alone to cry I couldn’t. I’d stuff the cork in so tight it was stuck. And intellectually I knew grief moved thru stages, it will all come as it comes, and there were tasks to address and urgent issues to move on to. Life goes on for the living, I like to say.
But I just felt numb, upside down, inside out, right here yet lost. Sometimes my wife Kristina would be solid and strong, too. Other times, however, she’d cry out in disorienting alarm “there’s nothing here! Nothing’s left! No walls no floors no leather couch no art no Buddhist shrine from my grandmother’s Japanese family no pictures nothing to stand on no nothing not anything!”
Kristina and I were overwhelmed. Many came to our support. We felt enormous gratitude and appreciation. A handful with project management experience crafted a website and a plan to help manage the high tide of help. And we needed help. One day all I had to wear was women’s clothes. Hand-me-overs were usually always way too big or way too tight. All three kids had their needs to address. Each one experienced the fire and its aftermath differently. Even the dog was affected. Jo was psycho.
Our days blurred by in a daze of little sleep and too much busy work. I spent hours either on the phone or down on my knees in sludgy rubble digging for photos and slides and documents and writings that may’ve survived. Miraculously some did survive in a bunker-like storage room in the back basement. Most, though, did not. All furniture, all clothes and shoes, family antiques, heirlooms, portfolios of our children’s art, assorted memorabilia of a full life, all gone. It is easy to say it’s just good that we’re alive and still above ground; that photos are just memories, and furniture can be replaced. But there is still a huge gaping void in our lives. The property itself was well over half-a-million dollars for the owner, our own personal possessions numbered a few hundred thousand dollars in losses, and the sentimental value is, of course, beyond any dollar amount.
Tears are healing, time passes, and life goes on for the living. And so we move forward, not to start over, but to relish every moment with gratitude and to simply move on one day at a time just glad to be above ground.
William Dudley Bass
Temporary Housing in Lynnwood
28 March 2010
A few days later my wife Kristina wrote the following:
UPDATE ON OUR RECOVERY PROCESS
- · Posted by Kristina Katayama Bass on April 5, 2010 at 12:00am
First let me start by saying, “Thank You.”
In the chaos of the last few weeks, with my attention on many too things I have been in sporadic communication. I’m on a friend’s computer right now and just getting through all the emails that have come since the fire.
It’s overwhelming and disorienting to lose everything in a fire … recovery is made one step at a time.
I want to start by saying thank you for your outreach and many encouraging, loving words and offers of support. I have been touched and moved by many of you in many ways. Thank you.
A friend sent this quote that captures my thoughts in this moment: “…almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
Yes, in the face of death, something we all escaped in the fire and which in the end engulfed every material thing we owned. The life that remains is what is important … and with this clean slate, I am free to follow my heart, just as I have always been, only now without any baggage or history, except for that which I choose to remember.
And I find without familiar material things, I feel quite disoriented and ungrounded. I don’t know where I am in space, I have no reference points, nothing familiar. It is surreal. I am in an altered state. Time is distorted. And little-by-little as we rebuild, I know how important it is to be aware of my intent and my impact and stay in the process. We’ll get there, wherever there is. Thank you for hanging in there with us. On a practical level let me give you a quick update:
Through the generosity of many, we have our immediate basics taken care of: a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and clothes on our backs. (Although William was in a woman’s top the other day, because that is all there was available at the time. Lime-green silk and chest hair make for an entertaining combination.) Next step is finding a new home to relocate into.
Then we can begin to gather, replace and receive all those things one needs (furniture, bedding, towels, dishes, office supplies, computer, etc. … oh yes, and our sports gear, can’t forget that) My daily mantra (many times a day) has become: “Shintiado with gratitude to the East! The time of day is morning. The time of year is spring. The time of life is birth. The way is being. … Vulnerable, dependent, curious, receptive, open, tender, blooming … begin again, begin again, begin again … ”
Kristina K Bass
Temporary housing in Woodinville, Washington
7 April 2010
P.S. (We were to move through a revolving door of temporary housing away from Edmonds to Lynnwood, then Woodinville, then Wallingford (Seattle), then South Lake Union (Seattle), then Pinehurst (Seattle).
William Dudley Bass
Revised & reposted 9 February 2012
NOTE: This was first published on a temporary community help website, then revised and reposted on April 7, 2010, as “After the Fire,” on my older autobiographical blog Cultivate and Harvest, at http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2010/04/after-fire.html. It was edited and re-published here this 9th of 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.