It was tragic. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Not up close and personal. You see, we live next door to Dan and Brenda Jacobs. Their house burned down on Christmas morning. Now, it wasn’t our house. We didn’t lose a thing. It didn’t happen to us. But, boy has it affected us.
About 8:40 a.m. on Christmas morning, I took breakfast out of the oven. We decided to take a break from opening gifts. (With seven children it takes a while!) We were planning to eat in the formal dining room which is usually reserved for special occasions. My husband Jeff walked to the window to open the shutters for light. He wasn’t expecting the light that he saw. “Oh my gosh, the Jacobs house is on fire!” he said. It was a horizontal line about 2 feet long on the gutter near the garage. I ran to the phone and called 911. I pleaded for them to hurry. My husband was already out the door to get the Jacobs out of their house. My oldest child Andrew (12) ran and got the fire extinguisher. Jeff and Dan did all they could to squelch the flames. There was no stopping the blaze. We could hear gas pouring into the house. I had even called Atmos for an emergency shut off. Dan and Jeff had already taken care of that on their own but it was too late. Selfishly I was afraid for my husband. I kept yelling out to him to get away from the house. I was afraid it would all blow or the cars in the driveway would catch on fire. Jeff ran back into the house to try and help salvage anything but the smoke was already so thick that he couldn’t see a thing. Neighbors were gathering. There was nothing we could do. There was nothing we could say. We stood there clad in pajamas, robes and slippers as our neighbors’ home melted. The next four hours were a blur.
Fire trucks from four different cities filled our cul-de-sac. My six boys were captivated. The firemen did all they could but there was no saving the house. One fireman told me that they could only drive 15 mph due to the icy roads. It just all happened so fast. I ran inside to get shoes and coat for the Jacobs. We were all out of harm’s way but the heat was so intense we weren’t cold. I can’t imagine the heat those firemen endure. I took photographs. I wasn’t sure if that was a morbid thing to do but something inside of me thought the Jacobs would want to see them some day. I even asked if I could take a picture of their family. They were safe. They were together. That’s all that really mattered. I imagine that picture will be one they will treasure some day in a strange sort of way. Obviously, one can see how our family was affected by such a tragic event, but it was the days and weeks that followed the fire that have affected us as well.
When we awoke the next morning, we were still in a fog from the day before. Not really having a sense of what to do, I looked out the window at the remains of my neighbor’s home. I was amazed at what I saw. Cars were lined up around the curbs as students, friends, and family of the Jacobs had gathered to offer their assistance. I stepped outside to see what I could do. Items from the Jacobs house were being carried out and sorted to see what could be salvaged. A stack of framed photographs caught my eye. I knew right then what my charge was. I became Chief Photo Saver! I started hauling any wet frame, singed photo album, blackened picture and charred document that was found into my house. We laid tarps down to help with the soot and ashes. In no time we had a crew of students and moms washing photographs of ash and soot, removing them from wet frames and laying them on towels. As I hand washed each image, I quickly realized I had the most important job. I was saving memories! We had crews using borrowed blow dryers to help prevent further water damage. My daughter Elizabeth (9) assisted with the drying while Philip (7) brought the damaged items into our house and helped with his younger siblings. People were in and out of our house all day. “Mi bano es tu bano” became our motto. Andrew (12) and Michael (10), adorned with rubber boots and gloves, helped carry stuff out of the ruins and helped dig through ash and rubble for any remaining treasure to present to the Jacobs. Luckily, Luke (2) played well while we all stayed busy.
The beauty became evident in all the love, help and encouragement given to the Jacobs. One sweet lady, who didn’t even know the Jacobs, showed up that day with a table, cooler, chips and sandwich fixings. She fed lunch to over 100 people. She didn’t even know them! Wow! Beautiful.
The next day was much the same. Once the house was cleared out, there wasn’t much for people to do here. But the beauty continued. Food was brought to our home to pass on the Jacobs. Many stores in the area presented them with gift cards. An account was set up for them for those who could make financial donations. Places to stay, furniture, food, clothing and more were offered as a small token to show how much everyone cared. People just wanted to help with something, anything. Beautiful.
It still continues. My children like to look out the front window of our home as the cars and trucks parade by and take in the blackened sight. We’ve thought about charging a toll for the “Jacob’s Fund” for all the onlookers. But, who can blame them! We still look every time we leave the house or get the mail.
Our society is so drawn to tragedy. I make it my personal goal to not watch the news or read the paper due to all the negative focus. Tragedy does happen, even next door. But from this tragedy I have seen amazing things. I have seen neighbors come together. People willing to give so generously of their time and resources. My young sons James (5) and David (4) are constantly saying, “We can give this… to the Jacobs”. David said they could come live with us and be a part of our family. I’ve seen how the Jacobs have counted their blessings, stayed strong in their faith, and been so positive through this whole ordeal. I’ve seen how our town has embraced the situation and offered their support in many ways.
Even though this experience was not my own, it has become such a part of me. I’m still finding ashes in my own house, but I am thankful. I’m thankful for all the countless people who have helped. I’m thankful my family has a small part in helping. I’m thankful the Jacobs chose to rebuild and still be our next door neighbors. Yes, there is tragedy, but it doesn’t have to end there. We must choose to focus on the beauty. There can be beauty from ashes.