Eighteen years in law enforcement; half spent in a department where I was cross-trained as a firefighter. At least that is what I tell people. Our training consisted of two weeks of what not to do and some basic fire science. Nonetheless, I did fight fires on occasion. Eighteen years of knowing what to do in almost any emergency - seven years later I felt like an absolute fool.
It is said that in times of stress or emergency a person falls back on their initial training. Rote practice enables muscle memories to take over and actions automatically fall into place. Not really though. When the emergency becomes close and personal, things change. OK, that and maybe six years have dulled the autonomic responses.
Tuesday afternoon our house caught fire. Yep, something you only read about in the news... it happens to others in far away places. Tuesday, it happened to us. The boys smelled smoke and mentioned it. I dismissed it as "the neighbor's BBQ." Then the boys said it smelled like plastic burning. I didn't smell anything but wood smoke like a fireplace (not likely in 80* heat) or maybe wood chips in the BBQ. I want BBQ.
After a few words back and forth, we all saw the column of smoke billowing from our wooden patio covering. It was a lot of smoke. Just like we'd practiced, every time I burned dinner and smoked out the house, I told the boys to get out and go to the neighbor. They handled their part perfectly. I on the other hand stood in my bedroom trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. I couldn't remember the plan. I finally settled on the laptop computer (have to attend class when this is all over) and the cat. I also had the presence of mind to call 911.
Just like in every nightmare I've had, I couldn't get the phone to dial out or miss-dialed. When I finally got it right I told the operator "I'm on fire!" That is about the time I came to my senses and started over. All the while going back in to get the dog. Really, the fire was on the patio and hadn't come inside yet so I had plenty of time. By then neighbors I've never met were there with hoses dousing the inferno.
We were ripe for this fire. An old sofa just outside the back door had baked in the sun for two years. An old broken rocker sat nearby and last year's dried out Christmas Tree was right beside the sofa. The fire started in the sofa. A bright orange wall of flames consumed the tree, sofa and the flashed over (rather under) the wooden awning.
While neighbors were dousing the flames, I walked in circles in the front yard. Not only was I stunned, I was in a fog and felt helpless. Sheriff deputies and firefighters all arrived and finished putting the fire out. Damage was minimal - all things considered. Then came the hard part. How the hell did a fire start in an old sofa?
I watched as the Captain interviewed all three of my boys. I suspected the truth and I allowed the Captain to question them without my presence. He came up with nothing. Isaac has apparently begun perfecting his lying skills. He had us nearly convinced, but for the fact that there was no other way.
I promised all three that no one was "in trouble" and no one was going to jail; just tell the whole truth. I repeated it several times to Isaac until I finally saw that investigative moment. The moment of resignation. There was fear in his tear filled eyes. I asked him if he was afraid and he barely nodded yes. I knew then that it was time.
Isaac, as many 11yrs old do had played with matches. Of all things, he had lit the match (or matches), extinguished it and then dropped the hot stub on the couch. Apparently the match had enough heat to smolder under a perfect storm of heat and wind, because without much more the flames were lit.
Isaac had no intent to start the fire. He was doing what so many do; acting grown-up. Lighting matches because he is old enough and mature enough to do so. I thought I'd taught him about smolders and about how matches burn even after they are blown out. I guess I hadn't. The look in his eyes was all I needed. Isaac was truly impacted by the fire and "what could have happened." I'm sure it won't happen again.
So in the aftermath, we are dealing with clean-up crews, construction crews, insurance agencies and three boys terrorized - again - by fire. All three remember the fires of 2007 when we evacuated. Austin had nightmares and fear of fire for years. Now it has started all over. All three refuse to sleep anywhere but in our room with us. Austin couldn't close his eyes without crying, twitching, or all out screaming. At least at this age he could tell us what he saw. His nightmare visions of lightning, fire, and firemen dying made me cry. That was three nights ago.
So now what? I don't know. All the training and practice in the world never prepared me to be the one on the helpless side. But that is what I feel: helpless. Helpless to comfort a guilty child. Helpless to comfort a terrorized child. Helpless to comfort a quietly suffering child. Helpless, helpless, helpless.
Maybe once the construction crews are gone and our house is back to "normal" things will fall back into place and I can go back to being the one in charge and the one who has it all together. Or maybe nothing will ever be the same. I just don't know.