It was 17 December 2003, on what was forecast to be the coldest night of the year, I built a fire in the fireplace. About 9:30–9:45 pm, Jeannie and I heard unusual sounds coming from the fireplace and on closer inspection, realized the sounds weren’t coming from the fireplace but seemed to be coming from the chimney. Observing sparks falling down from the chimney rather than rising up, I immediately closed the fireplace doors and shut the vent, then went out back to the deck to see if there was any visible problem at the chimney.
As soon as I opened the back door, the odor of creosote caught my attention and with it a sense of dread made me shudder. Quickly moving further onto the deck, where I could see the chimney, I saw flames pouring from the flue pipe. Although the flames appeared to be limited to the chimney itself, I felt that it was worse than it looked. Without hesitation we called 9-1-1.
Within five minutes the Seminole County Fire Department (SCFD) was on the scene. By the time the first firefighters were on the deck observing the chimney, the flames were beginning to break through the box surrounding the flue pipe. From below one firefighter emptied a canister of CO2 up the chimney in an effort to extinguish the fire within the flue, but to no avail, the flames continued to leap about above the roof.
By the time the first hoses were brought into play, only a very short time after the arrival of the first fire vehicle, the flames were beginning to break through the roof at the base of the chimney. When the first streams of water hit the flames and burst into steam, the fire seemed to explode. As was later explained, the water that was sprayed on the fire carried additional oxygen into the area of the flames and the large steam cloud formed by the water hitting the fire and hot materials reflected the light of the flames making it appear momentarily larger. This marked what we thought was the turning point of the fire fighting effort. In fact from that point on all was apparently under control. By this time there were seven fire trucks, 3–5 fire support vehicles, and a half-dozen law enforcement vehicles lining the street in front of our home. Hoses were snaking around the street, through our lawn, and disappearing into and around our home. The appearance of axes and power saws being carried onto the roof gave an indication of the severity of the significance of the fire. The chimney and a sizeable section of the roof had to be removed to allow access to all the areas that had been affected.
Inside of our home the firefighters were busy trying to approach the burning areas from several directions. Access to the chimney through the attic was impossible due to the convergence of several intersecting gables, so several large holes had to be broken through the walls and ceiling in order to access the firebox and chimney area. Prior to breaking through any wall or ceiling, our furniture was moved out of harms way as best as it could, and dozens of framed photographs were removed from the walls and placed carefully on the bed in a guest room.
Sometime after 11:00 pm or so (my comprehension if time had become quite distorted) things were pretty much under control. Firefighters were everywhere and things were beginning to wind down. Hoses were shut off and began flattening before being carried back to their respective trucks. Equipment was stacked on the pavement or on the sidewalk. By midnight it was essentially over. Jeannie and I had been allowed back into the house with flashlights (the electricity had been turned off) to view the damage and to retrieve some personal items that we would need as we would have to spend the night at a friend’s home down the street. We quickly grabbed some important documents, a couple of outfits, sox, underwear, and toiletries threw them hastily into a suitcase and put it into the trunk of Jeannie’s car which I had moved out of the garage just after calling 9-1-1 in order to make access easier for firefighters. Jeannie and our friend Barb, in whose home we were going to spend the night decided to walk the short distance to Barb’s house as both of our vehicles were blocked in the driveway by a fire truck.
After the final inspections were made by the State fire marshals and the SCFD, I walked through the house, surveyed the damage, and exiting with the last of the firefighters I locked up feeling confident that the worst was over and that we had escaped with only moderate cosmetic and structural damage. I then drove to Barb’s tired and ready for some sleep.
Neither Jeannie nor I heard the doorbell ring at about 3:30 am on the 18th. Barb knocked loudly on the bedroom door and let us know that there were two of our neighbors, who happen to be police officers, were at the front door and needed to see us. Half-asleep, I opened the door to see Tim and Marlene. I really don’t remember the conversation, but I do recall the fear and concern in the eyes of my neighbors as they explained that the fire had somehow rekindled and our house was … gone.
Dazed, Jeannie and I tried to comprehend what was happening. I dressed, and asked Jeannie to stay there with Barb, and I would report back soon — though the news as it had been delivered was clear and bad enough.
It was the coldest night of the year, and my fast walk quickened to a run as much from the cold as the fear of what lay ahead. Turning the corner I saw as many fire trucks as had been there only four hours earlier, but this time was very different. This time the thought of saving individual photographs or sofas gave way to a desperate fight to save anything, anything at all.
When I arrived fully three-quarters of the roof was either collapsed or burning. Shadows from flames inside the house danced on the curtains and blinds only to be interrupted by the sounds of those same windows being broken out and timbers and ceiling crashing down. The horrible, acrid smell of the smoke hung in the cold night air and made me nauseous. I had heard the term “gut-wrenching” before, but I now knew what it felt like.
Stunned and feeling sick to my stomach, I returned to Barbs. My appearance was not one that inspired hope, and after regaining some composure Jeannie and I returned to what remained of our house.
We remained until the cold light of the early morning revealed the destruction to an extent that was only imagined in the dark. Now we could peer through the shattered windows into what was once a bright and cheerful home decorated for the holiday season and was now a burnt, blackened, wet and devastated place.
It was a scene that was beyond comprehension. It was surreal. Tired and overwhelmed we walked back to our friends’ home. Yet as we walked, Jeannie made a comment that probably sums up our overall attitude about this ordeal, “You know,” she said, “I think there’s still some water in our glass.”
Referring to the fact that some people’s attitudes can be characterized as being like a “glass half empty”, we have always felt our life is like a “glass half full”, and in fact, often overflowing.
Likewise, we have been fortunate to have many wonderful adventures and experiences and have discovered that our riches are in these things, not the material things that were destroyed. Certainly we will miss the innumerable “things” that we have collected in our thirty years together, but the things that we value even more now include the concern and assistance of our neighbors, friends, families, associates, and even strangers who have all stepped forward in our time of need. Our material treasures are vastly overshadowed by this true wealth.