.journal 2001.05.24
The house fire and everything after.

Now listening to: Narada Decade
Now reading: Poppy Z. Brite, Courtney Love: the Real Story
Now playing: NHL 2001 (Playstation 2)

It's funny how sometimes the events that take place later in a day can make you remember so vividly the events which came before them. The memories of the day of 05.15 seem so vivid to me now that I could go on forever describing them.

For example, after I got up and showered, I can remember putting on a pair of pink shorts I'd recently bought at Meijer; owing to my recent weight loss, this was the first time I'd been able to buy shorts that weren't plus-sized, something I was really happy about. And I remember pairing it with my "I (heart) (the Powerpuff Girls) t-shirt, which I'd recently worn in some photos of myself I'd have taken to compare with pictures of me at a much heigher weight.

I remember seeing the note from my sister stuffed underneath my bedroom door, stating that her younger cat, Spyder, had one of her teeth dangling outside of her mouth, and as a preventive measure the elder cat, Rowan, had been placed on the back porch with plenty of food and water so that the two cats didn't get in a fight. I remember how Jeff came over and the three of us struggled to get Spyder into a pillowcase for safe transport to the vet. And I remember Jeff driving them to the vet, where they were to discover that the tooth had rotted out, and Spyder would be losing at least one other tooth depending on tests they would have to run later.

I remember going up to Heather's room after she came back; Heather and I rarely go into each other's rooms because of our respect for each other's privacy, but she and I and Mom had a nice little talk up there about what was happening to Spyder. And I remember seeing the huge Marvin the Martian stuffed doll I'd gotten for her a few Christmases ago.

I remember Heather coming downstairs after the folks went to bed, so she could watch a Yankees game. (The Yankees were on the West Coast, so the game started very late.) I remember passing by the living room long after the game was over, and still seeing MSG Network on, and my sister napping on the couch. And I remember deciding not to wake her, and to let her get her sleep.

Most importantly, though, I remember feeling kind of tired and wanting to go to bed, but deciding not to. I'd had this project I was working on for C. and J., and I was trying to work on it a little every day, and I hadn't worked on it yet that day and really wanted to. So I got my stuff out on the bed and started working on it. I even put a collage of pictures from C. and J. up on my computer monitor, so I could look up and see them while I was working.

As I got near the end of the work I wanted to do that night, though, I noticed a strange odour. I couldn't identify it, but it was almost syrupy sweet. Stranger still, it seemed to exist in layers in my room; I tried moving my head up and down a few inches, and there seemed to be different strata - odour, no odour, odour, no odour. It was strange, but I didn't think too much of it. After all, my father tends to wake up even when I burn something in the oven, so if there was anything wrong, I thought he'd be the first to notice it.

Then the sound began. It was a crackling sound, but not like any I'd ever heard. We have a fireplace in the house and it's used regularly in the colder months, and the crackling of the fireplace is always clean, crisp, almost stacatto in nature. This crackling was deep, and much more infrequent. This was certainly odd, but had it not been for the smell I probably would have ignored it as something my sister was doing. But I got up to investigate.

The thought had crossed my mind that maybe there was a fire going on, but I dismissed the thought as my pessimistic streak run amok. A fire in the house and nobody would have noticed, especially if Heather was still asleep in the living room? Yeah right. Still, as I got to my door, I can remember feeling at the doorknob with the back of my hand with a smug grin on my face, remembering all the lessons I learned in fire safety at school about not touching a doorknob with the palm of your hand in a fire, because the doorknob could burn you and you'd be unable to grab with that hand. The doorknob was cold to the touch, so I let out a smarmy little exhale through my nostrils and opened the door.

And my universe exploded right in front of me.

It was up in the second floor, but there was definitely a fire. Quickly I darted around the corner and looked up, and my sister's bedroom was positively engulfed in flames. Not yellow flames, but deep, deep orange, like cherry-orange Kool-Aid. That was the source of the odour and the sound, but at that point I didn't care, something in me just took over. I took two steps forward, right into the main juncture of the hallways of the house, gathered up my breath, and poured my soul, my survival, every desire I had to save my family, into the loudest second of my life.


As soon as I said it, instinctually, I sidestepped over and opened up the door to the parents' bedroom. My father had already sat up, my mom was still lying down on the bed. "The second floor's on fire, we gotta get outta here fast," I said. Or something like that, I can't remember what. I could hear Heather getting up and going around to look herself, then going, "OH MY GOD!"

Before I knew it we were all out on the front porch, in front of the house. Opening the front door like that was probably a mistake, though, as the backdraft started the fire down the staircase in front of the door. With all of us there I remember trying to say something about how someone should try to get to a phone and call 911, but before I could say it I had leapt off the porch and gone to our new next-door neighbours' house and started pounding on the door and ringing the doorbell.

It took some time, but both the man and woman of the house came to the door at the same time. I told them about the fire and asked them if I could use their phone to dial 911. As the man went out on his front porch and saw the fire and went, "Oh geez," the woman dialed up 911 on her cell phone and handed it to me, which is probably a very good thing because I've never used a cell phone in my life and I would have been at a loss on how to use it.

One ring. "911."

Something in me made me enunciate everything and make sure I said everything clear but still as fast as possible. "This is Sean Shannon at (street name and number), there is presently a fire on the second floor of my house."

I can't remember the specifics of the rest of the conversation, just that she said fire trucks were on the way, and that she identified me as being next door, and when I asked her if I should stay on the line she said I should hang up and get with the rest of the family away from the house. I thanked her, handed the phone back to the woman, thanked them, and ran out to the front of the street.

My sister was pacing back and forth in front of the driveway, saying, "It's all my fault, it's all my fault, it's all my fault" over and over again. I tried to comfort her, but I couldn't get through, so I turned around to go try to find the parents.

It was pretty cold that night, and there was a heavy rain going. Yet despite all this, day-glo orange flames were shooting out of my sister's bedroom window. I asked my father if he should move the van out of the way so the fire trucks could get through, and he said he would do so. I was checking on my mother and she asked if everyone was safe, when all of a sudden I saw Heather in front of the sliding glass door in the front of the house, with Rowan on the other side.

I ran up to the door intending to pull Heather away, but before I knew it I was pulling on the door handle, trying to get the door open. But we had installed a steel bar in the gap where the door slides open, and I couldn't budge it. After a few attempts, I told Heather it was of no use and we'd better get out of there. With as low down to the ground as cats are, I figured Rowan would probably be safe from smoke inhalation for the next little while, and with the fire coming down the stairs like it was I shouldn't try to go into the house. Besides, the fire department was only a couple of miles away and I was sure they'd be over quickly.

Heather and I turned around, and there was our mother, face down on the front lawn.

I said I'd been trying to curb my pessimistic streak recently, but at that point I couldn't help but think she'd had a heart attack. I ran over to her and went, "Mother, Mother," grabbing her left forearm. With a bolt her eyes opened up. Luckily she had only fainted, and after not a small amount of effort we were able to get her up and moving.

Father had moved the van out in front of the house, and that's where Mother, Heather and myself spent the next little while. Two police cars preceded the first fire truck, and more fire trucks followed. From where I was I didn't have too good a vantage point of the house, but it seemed like they contained the fire quickly enough. Mother and Heather began smoking like there was no tomorrow, and Mom wanted to open the window to ventilate the van, but at that point their smoke wasn't bothering me nearly as much as the fact that I had just been out in what turned into a downpour, in fifty-degree temperatures, in a t-shirt and shorts and stocking feet.

Heather passed blankets up to us, and father kept coming back to us to see if we were doing okay. At one point a few of the firemen came up to my mother's window to check on her (someone must have told them she had fainted), but she said she was okay. The one blanket wasn't keeping me warm enough as I was shaking like no tomorrow, so Heather reached back again and handed me a small clear plastic package, about the size of a deck of cards, that read "Thermal Blanket." I got an expression on my face as if to say, "These things are supposed to be used in emergencies," but before Heather could even correct me I realized this was an emergency, and I opened the blanket up.

I kept looking back, thinking I still saw the light on in my room, but in hindsight I realize it was the lamppost in front of my neighbours' home that I was seeing; the firemen had shut the circuit breakers off shortly into their rescue attempt. Heather tried to lie down on the back seat, clearly in shock over seeing her room ablaze and not knowing the safety of her cats. Mother was shaking, either from cold or what had happened, so I kept talking to her, trying to keep her as in this world as I could.

Father came back to us a few times, finally reporting that the main fire was out but the firemen had to make a sweep of the upstairs to see all the embers and stuff were out. Staying there was no good, so I moved to the backseat, father took the wheel and drove us all to his office. Once there, Heather found the insurance paperwork so father could start making calls, then made us all hot tea as Mother and I sat.

The odd thing, though, is that I can remember seeing father in front of my computer, and wanting so desperately to get online. I can access my main e-mail account over the Internet, and so I wanted to e-mail L., C., J., Jeff and my friends and let them know what was going on, just so they knew. But it took some time to do that. In the meantime we all inventoried what we had (luckily Mom grabbed her purse and her false teeth before leaving the house), with me going up to the closet to grab all the extra shirts and sweatshirts we had up there.

When all was said and done, we had the insurance people aware of what had happened, a hotel room at a nearby Red Roof Inn, and builders ready to board up where the fire had torn through the house. It was agreed that father would take Mom and Heather to the hotel room then go back to the house (daylight was rapidly approaching) to check on what was happening there, while I would stay behind to tell our co-worker what was going on and also to monitor the phones.

It was also at this point that I learned that father had taken the garden hose and tried to contain the fire himself, and in the process had been splattered by material from the fire. As he spoke on the phone, I began to pick the char off him; there was a tear-drop shaped piece on his right cheek, a small patch on his chest, a slightly larger patch on his chest, another small patch on his right hand and a huge patch on his right forearm. As I began deflating, I joked to Mother that father now shared something in common with an athlete she's fond of. That seems just about the most inappropriate time to joke, but I couldn't help but do it; I guess it was a defense mechanism.

But being in front of the computer helped calm me down. I wasn't sure what had happened at the house, but I was fairly confident that the fire hadn't reached my side of the house, since it was on the opposite side from the fire. Still, I couldn't be too sure, and despite having made a backup CD of all my music files recently, I hadn't yet delivered it to the office, and this said nothing about all my songwriting stuff that was still in paper form. But being able to e-mail my friends, then update this site to let everyone know what had happened, helped me.

I guess it was kind of selfish for me to think about my stuff at that point, but really I wasn't thinking about it too much. The family was safe, and I knew that counted for a lot, but we still had two cats unaccounted for, and my sister had lost everything but the clothes off her back and the jewelry on her body. I couldn't help but wonder what she was feeling, and wanting to do something for her but realizing there was nothing I could do. Besides, it was really only my songwriting that I was concerened for at that point; as I've said before, my songwriting is my life, and I had years of struggle and pain wrapped up in those computer files and index cards of lyrics.

After updating the site, I busied myself on the computer playing games on Yahoo! and researching Japan. I told our co-worker what had happened when he came in, then later took a phone call from the fire marshal who wanted my father's permission to let the builders onto the property so they could board the house up. I didn't want to give that authority, so I ended up taking the fire marshal's cell phone number so father could call him as soon as he got into the office.

Father ended up coming back into the office, with Mom in tow. Mother ended up working a good part of the day while Heather stayed behind at the Red Roof Inn deflating. Father had had an opportunity to go into the house and survey what had happened; the fire had been contained to the second floor, but in addition to Heather's bedroom the fire also got the room which was formerly my father's "office" before he opened his business, and had turned into a storage area for the entire family, including space for keepsakes. And, of course, in order to get the fire out, the firefighters had to practically flood the upstairs with water, and so there was significant water damage to the house. There was significant seepage below my sister's bedroom, but my side of the house was still dry; the only damage came when the glass light fixture on my ceiling came undone and shattered on my floor.

Also, the fire marshal said that because things were so cramped in the upstairs, the cause of the fire could never be properly determined. But at that point I was fairly sure that it was not Heather's fault, as she first thought. I was a bit worried because a former acquiantance of mine had his apartment go up in flames nearly six months to the day, and his fire had been attributed to arson. It's no great secret that I've made a lot of enemies in my life, and I started to wonder if maybe someone had tried something drastic against me.

Worse yet, I know that some people who only know me from online and are under the impression that I am suffering from some kind of mental illness might either think that I would actually lie about having my house go up in flames, or even worse might think I would set my own house on fire. But quite honestly I couldn't care less what they all thought at that point. I still had two cats missing, and a sister who had lost nearly everything. I had to be more concerned with this inner circle of mine then what some assholes might try to do with this.

Father and I ended up going back to the house so I could start pulling my stuff out of there; it was likely going to be months before we could move back in, and so I needed to grab everything of mine I could. There was a bit of a conflict because Service Master had been commissioned to come in, get everything out and get it cleaned of the smoke damage, so I had to be careful about what I pulled out and what I didn't. But because I don't do a good job of trusting other people with my stuff, I did end up pulling a lot out; besides which, the smoke damage really didn't affect my room that much.

Unfortunately, by the time I got there an old crack above my ceiling had opened back up and began seeping water down. I only lost the mattress I'd recently bought because of this, but the thing is that that mattress was about thrice as thick as my old one, and my songwriting stuff was in a drawer underneath my bed, so I'd say that mattress served its duty well. The project I had been working on before the fire was somewhat damp because it was on the bed, but it seems to have dried out nicely.

So there I was, packing for a trip of indeterminable length, about to say goodbye to the only home I've known my whole life (excepting dorm life at college). The first thing I grabbed was my computer and songwriting stuff, of course, although I didn't grab everything computer-related; I left behind things like my printer and Sidewinder. Once that was safe, I packed away all my stuffed animals, simply because I have great sentimental attachment to them and they've been out of production for about a decade. And wouldn't you know it, the third thing I grabbed was my Morning Pages journal; yes, The Artists' Way has become that important to me.

While I was there, though, my father was talking with the insurance people and stuff, and since I had my camera out I decided to document what had happened. There was something macabre about doing such, but I figured it would be a good record for our own sake if nothing else, for later claims. The firefighters had basically thrown everything from the second floor out into a pile on the opposite side of the house, and looking through there I could see just how much was lost. My father had a collection of every copy of National Geographic dating back to 1947, and some singular issues going back to 1918, and they were all water-damaged. I could see my parents' old LPs, some of my sister's CDs, and what of mine was still up there.

Back when I was young I was totally into Peanuts, and I had a collection of all the paperback compendiums that were never recovered. But on top of the pile was one of the old Charlie Brown Cyclopedias that I think Mother got for me down at the local Centre grocery store. (Yes, it's actually called Centre, not Center. That store was later sold to Food Town, then shut down entirely when Meijer opened up a couple of miles west of there.) That kind of brought it home to me, but what was even worse was that the highchair my father built for me when I was a baby was also out there, half-charred but still intact. Hopefully I can get the photos back soon to show you all.

After unloading my computer equipment and stuff at the office and my personal effects at the Red Roof Inn, all four of us went back to the house to unload more stuff and also so Heather could look for her cats. Rowan we weren't too worried about, because she had recently kicked ass in a fight with a tabby, and carried herself quite well for a fourteen-year-old. (Rowan and I actually share the same birthday.) But we've had Spyder since she was six weeks old when her mother kicked her out because of an infection on the right side of her neck and she huddled in front of our front door for comfort, and she's still young and innocent and naive and wouldn't really have known how to take care of herself outdoors. The firefighters, builders and cleaners had spotted both cats darting out at different points, but we didn't know where they were.

It was at this point that the real business went down between my parents and the insurance company went down. Thankfully we had a huge insurance policy and the company was super-cool, so we were pretty much set in terms of our recovery, but still and all nothing can bring back my sister's stuff, you know? I finished packing, finally remebering to get clothes and personal cleaning stuff on this trip, as well as a good chunk of my electronics. My new stereo stayed because it would have been too heavy to pack and of no real use to me, but I grabbed my VCR, my video games and my CDs. (I have enough rare, import and bootleg CDs that I didn't want to chance them to the cleaners.)

My mother finally buckled when the cleaners brought out my guitar and my father's banjo. It was an incredibly odd trigger, and she can't even explain it, but those kinds of things usually defy explanation probably. Of course Heather had buckled several times at this point, and I've only seen my father buckle twice in his life. I hadn't buckled yet, and strangely I have yet to; I'm hoping to get my VCR hooked up here soon, so I can watch Oh My Goddess! and hopefully trigger something that way.

Anyway, after we were done at the house we headed back to the office so father could take care of things there, and despite having been awake for over 24 hours at that point I drove Mom and Heather to Meijer; after all, my sister needed clothes, since she now only had what was on her body, and we all needed food and stuff. Since the Red Roof Inn had no kitchen, I assumed my diet was shot at that point (I'd actually ordered a pizza at the office earlier in the day), so I went ahead and got myself what I could to survive on. My sister actually ended up being nothing but Yankees shirts, but I wasn't about to question her. We had a cheque from the insurance company at that point, but our bank was closed, and it was easier for me to use my credit card because I had all the money I'd saved up for my car on it; I'll be getting reimbursed here soon anyway.

Following that, we all went back to the hotel room, where after a small amount of television watching I finally tried getting some sleep. My heart wasn't in it, though, and it didn't help that Heather let Jeff into the hotel room at one point so they could discuss things. When I got up, Jeff had left, and Heather was watching a Yankees game on the television with the sound off. I ended up writing Morning Pages for the day at midnight, watching the rest of the game after Heather went to bed, then falling back asleep finally.

Checkout time for the Red Roof Inn was noon and we were supposed to have another hotel room ready for us at 15h, paid for by the insurance people, but owing to all the chaos that was still going on our plan to leave the Red Roof Inn by noon that day backfired. As father was still running around with the van sorting things out, I ended up spending the day at the hotel room, watching TV and thinking about things. They had video games available, but they were four Super Nintendo games and it cost $6.95 an hour to play them. No thank you.

What hurt the most, though, was that Heather and I were sharing one hotel room and my parents the other, and while I was in my room by myself I looked at what I had brought up and thought that it looked miniscule compared to what Heather had. Then I realized that that was all Heather had at that point. I guess that really hammered home to me how much Heather had lost. That's what I keep coming back to in all this, is that Heather lost everything, and no matter how awkward this is for me, compared to what Heather's gone through I just can't fathom complaining or something like that.

Finally some relief came at 17h when Mom called and said Spyder had been found in a downstairs closet, and she was now safe and secure and would be in the hotel room with us. They all went to the new hotel room first and took care of things while I stayed at the Red Roof Inn, until finally they came and got me and I packed my stuff up and came to my new hotel room, where I am at presently. I had to wait until later at night, but I drove back to the office to get my computer equipment, as well as Meijer to pick up some other things, and it was that drive when I was first really by myself. It didn't help that I was driving back to my neighbourhood and then realized that it wasn't my neighbourhood, and I guess that's the closest I've come to losing it so far.

I got my computer equipment up here, and after not a small amount of wrangling around I've got it set up here. Mind you, this is actually a nicer setup than the one I had at home because I could only get a 26.4 connection on the phone lines at home, and I'm getting 56k regularly here, but I also presently have my computer keyboard on top of a packing box lid, and my mouse on the box which contains my herbal supplements. Not the most elegant setup, and it's hardly ergonomic, but at this point I figure I can't complain.

But it was good to know all my computer files were safe, and you can best believe that one of the first things I did when I got set up here was to get some CD-Rs, back up everything important to me and ship it to the office. So should lightning strike twice, my songs and such will be safe. I guess I really haven't been on this computer much, in part because we only have the one phone line and I'm trying to keep it clear, but I am trying to stay in regular contact with my friends here. Jeff can come over, of course, and he has done so on a regular basis (which I have greatly appreciated), but most of them I have to stay in contact with via the Internet, and it's their support which is helping me the most right now.

I guess life here in the hotel is okay. I mean, it's a nice room and all, if you avoid the fact that I only have a half-wall here on the second floor and so I have to wear earplugs when I sleep so I don't get woken up by anything downstairs, but that's not a real problem. But if there's one area that I'm unequipped to handle, it's that my sister at least has some experience moving around and such. That room in my house was the only room I've known my whole life, save the dorm in college. And even at college, I was still coming home on the weekends; I've never gone more than three weeks at a time without coming back to that room. That room grounds me, makes me feel secure, and it's not going to be there for me for a long time. And that's kind of hard for me to deal with.

Actually, I might not have that room again. The water damage to the house was extensive, and at the very least the first floor will have to be stripped down to the studs, and even those might not be safe. The house will be rebuilt, yes, but my room will never really be the same again. And there is some talk about me moving up to what was formerly father's office when we get back to the house. But at this point I just want my home back. But I'm not going to get it back for months, probably.

But I am safe, and my family is safe, and that is what counts. Rowan is still MIA at this point, but Heather seems fairly secure that she is probably living in our weed-swamped backyard with some strays. She keeps going back every once in a while to check on Rowan, but since we're going to have strange people going in and out of her house for a while (Rowan is possessive like that), she'll probably stay away for awhile. And while this is hardly the best living arrangement I've ever had, I'm certainly in no position to complain.

I guess if there's one thing that I'm uncomfortable with, it's that in phone calls to relatives and the like, my family is making me out as being this grand heroine for noticing the fire and being the one to call 911 and the like. But I guess even now I've got feelings of inadequacy. I keep thinking back to that night and wondering, you know, if I should have woken Heather up on the couch so she would have been upstairs. (Actually it was probably for the best she was downstairs, because thinking back to that night that fire spread awfully fast, so if she was upstairs she probably would have risked severe injury.) Or sometimes I think that maybe I should have noticed the smell a bit quicker than I did. But the reason I couldn't identify the smoke was because due to all the renovations my father did up there, there was a good deal of pine that got burnt, hence the strange, certainly unfamiliar, sweet smell. But those are the kinds of thoughts I can't allow myself to think; I did what I could, and while I don't think I deserved a medal or anything like that, I guess it was my action that saved at least something for the family.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some details here that I'll want to pass along to you all, but it's not like I'm going anywhere. It's just taken me this long to write because it took me about a week to get my mind out of survival/pragmatic mode, and into a space where I can write. Hopefully I can start working on my creative endeavours some more here, because that is my true solace, and I think I need to spend a lot of time there. After all I've been through these past ten days, I certainly deserve it. But I will survive. As I have learned from this incident, and other crises in my life, I have an incredible ability to persevere in the toughest of circumstances, and it's no stretch to say that this may be the hardest thing I've done in my life. I will be okay, though.

I'll see you all again soon. Everyone take care and be well, and if you could maybe try to send some good vibrations in the general direction of Toledo, Ohio, they would be much appreciated.

- Sean