The Colonel’s Plan – A Misplaced Step

July 25, 2018

Dear Daddy –

We had another death in the family this week. Different family. My Fire Department family. I didn’t know Nate well, and can’t summon a memory even of a conversation we’ve had. Monday morning, very early, he responded with Engine 101 to a fire just around the corner from your house. It’s a huge house, twice the size of yours. I’ve heard estimates from 8,000 to 12,000 square feet. 

After he and his officer had entered the house, the floor gave way beneath Nate’s feet and he plunged into a crawlspace below. His comrades literally went through fire to save him. Emergency Medical was on the scene and ready. 

But Nate died. He was 34 and left behind a wife and five children. It’s the first line of duty death of a firefighter in Howard County since 1969, and the first ever death of a career firefighter during a response. 

Yesterday, our office staff rode to Nate’s home fire station and placed a wreath in his honor, and then visited the site where he died. I was just starting the floor tile in the pink bathroom when Renee texted me and asked me to join them at fire ground.  

It’s still the scene of an active investigation as I write this. It was a huge fire, and we lost someone in it, so the ATF was there, and the State Fire Marshal, and our own investigators. They had set up an office in a tiny outbuilding by the swimming pool, and many of them were seated, taking a break around an outdoor bar in the side yard. I wondered how it must feel for the homeowners, who can’t even enter the property to claim their car keys, to have all those strangers taking up residence in the half-burned wreck of their home. 

We walked around the house and went to the door Nate had entered just before he died. It was sobering. I didn’t get too close. I’d rushed to get there and was wearing flip-flops, which I tend to wear almost exclusively when it’s been raining a lot. It’s been raining a lot. My feet weren’t well-guarded against the glass, mud and trip hazards, so I held back. I could see the hole in the floor, though. The middle section of the house, basement to ceiling, was burned through. 

About Nate I feel the abruptness that death can have. You’re alive and doing your job one minute. You’re not the next. That didn’t happen to you. It’s happened to others I’ve known and loved. Statistically, it can happen to anyone, I guess. Life is risky. Getting out of bed in the morning can be dangerous, I suppose. Statistically, firefighters are at greater risk. They go into danger for a living. One of our retired chief’s wives said to me, “We’ve been really, really lucky over the years.” I guess she’s right. As much as the men and women I work with court danger, they’ve managed to avoid what happened to Nate… until it happened to Nate. 

The sight of the house moved me too. I’ve seen burned buildings before, but the sight of this one, so close to the house I grew up in, also a big, brick structure… it grabbed my imagination, I guess. It grabbed that dark part of my imagination. 

How easily a fire can start. How quickly it can move. Yes, this house was built in 1990, before sprinkler requirements, but after lightweight materials began to be common. It probably burned faster than yours would. Yours would still burn. It was a challenge to fight the fire because of the architecture—sprawling, multi-level, lots of high ceilings and open spaces. They call it “McMansion style.” I don’t know the correct architectural term for it. Your house is of a traditional design and would be easier for a crew to size up and attack. Yours would still burn. 

The owners can’t even move their cars. The keys are in the kitchen drawer, and no one can set foot in the kitchen yet. 

So much change in seconds. 

Life can end with the snap of a finger, or the failure of a joist. 

A house can become a ruin. Even though the fire itself burned for eight hours or more, the house’s fate was decided almost at once. 

It rattles my belief in building for the future. What we build can burn down. What we are can cease to be. Even that which we leave behind can be taken away. 

Our stories can live on. That’s all. Our memories, placed in the minds of others, can continue, when hearts stop and buildings burn. 

They’re telling Nate’s story all over the place—on the news, on Facebook, in the offices and firehouses. We promoted him to Lieutenant after his death. He deserved that promotion. 

And I’m telling your story. It seems more important than ever. 

Memories don’t have to go up in flames, or die when our hearts stop, or even when our brains fail us. 

Wood burns. Paper burns. Flesh burns. 

Memories can be invulnerable…

If we protect them.

Love,

Steven

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