As I sat in English class awaiting the arrival of my professor, my phone rang. It was my mother. I was instantly annoyed. I had just talked to her the night before and she knew that I was in class, so why was she calling me now when she knew that I was unable to talk? My voice cut into the stillness of the nearly empty classroom as I harshly whispered a single word into the phone. “What?” I said, in a tone of annoyance that I instantly regretted. I could hear my mother sobbing on the other end of the line. “It’s an emergency isn’t it?” I asked. Before I had even finished asking the question, I was standing out in the hallway, bracing myself for the news. I could barely comprehend the words that came from my mother’s mouth. “Jess, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m just going to say it because you need to hear it from me. Your house, our house…it’s burning down as we speak…”
And once again, I whispered “what?” into the phone, only this time with a tone of despair rather than annoyance. My mother had to repeat herself three times before I was able to make sense of what she was telling me. My younger sister Sam grabbed the phone from my mom when the sobs made her speech incomprehensible. “Jess,” she said, “I’m standing in the driveway and I’m watching our bedroom burn.” My stomach churned as the disturbing vision manifested itself in my head and I could not bear to hear any more, so, after quickly promising to call after class, I ended the call. I stood in the hallway, helpless and desperate and alone, leaning against the wall for support, trying not to visualize my home of 18 years and the flames that were consuming it. I made the short journey back to the classroom and opened the door with tears spilling uncontrollably from my eyes. I could feel apprehensive stares coming from my classmates, but my efforts to keep my emotions in check were completely unsuccessful and I sat in class for 50 minutes, silently sobbing.
Hours later, after the day had run its course, I sat on my bed exhausted and barely able to function, surrounded by my best friends. Every phone call brought more unbearable news and by the end of the longest day of my life, I was physically unable to shed another tear. As the day progressed, I slowly learned the details of what the media was calling “The Tragedy in Shaler.”
My mother was home alone getting ready for work when she heard an unusual popping noise at around 8:00 am. She went outside to look for the source of the disturbance and her senses were immediately drawn to the black smoke rising out of the roof. Several people, including my mom, dialed 911 because the smoke could be seen from a distance. It was later estimated that the attic had been burning for at least a half hour while my mom was in the house. It took approximately 45 minutes for the fire trucks to get water from the fire hydrants, which were a block away, and to start extinguishing the flames that had already destroyed the majority of my house. After a three-hour battle with the flames, the 10 fire companies and the 17 fire trucks on the scene finally succeeded in putting out the fire. When the smoke cleared, all that remained of the house that had once been so sturdy were four unstable, badly charred walls.
Until the official cause of the fire was determined, my father blamed himself. Eighteen
years ago, he built our house with the assistance of a few family members. He was extremely proud of the home he had built for his family. After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the fire originated from an insulated pipe that ran through our heating system. The pipe split due to an excess of heat and pressure, which caused it to catch on fire. It was deemed a “freak accident.” My entire family was content with this explanation; we were just happy that my dad could finally stop blaming himself for something that was certainly not his fault. The cause was not determined immediately though, and watching my dad blame himself was unbearable for my entire family.
With every phone call, my mother had to continually assure me that everyone was fine. I felt useless and disconnected from my family since I could not physically be there with them. There was not much I could do and I was incapable of taking care of them, so I did the only thing I could think of. I sent them Penn State t-shirts since they had lost all of their clothes. I later realized that I did not have to worry about my family at all because the entire community of Shaler was selflessly taking care of them. My grandparents housed and fed them until they found a new house. My extended family bought them clothes and other necessities. Our friends also did whatever they could to help. Complete strangers donated essential items to my family as well. I am eternally grateful to my community, which has helped us through the toughest of times. The support has been ongoing ever since the fire happened. A local church hosted a benefit spaghetti dinner and the high school organized a bake sale. The two events raised approximately $10,000 for my family and we greatly appreciate the aid the community has provided.
While my mom promised me she was holding up just fine, I heard a different side of the story from my older sister, Ang. When I talked to my mom on the phone, she seemed like she was doing okay considering the circumstances. When I talked to Ang on the phone, she informed me that my mom was practically a zombie. She said that both of my parents just sat around, silent and dazed, and that they would not even eat. When she told me about my father’s reactions to the event, my heart broke. My father has a very rough exterior, so I was surprised to learn that he had cried, even considering the extreme circumstances. We had never seen my dad cry before, which made it especially hard to bear. My father is also a very proud man. The only clothes he had were the ones on his back and he refused to change out of them even though they were coated in ashes and smelled of smoke because he was digging through the debris. He did not want to change because the clothes on his back were one of his few remaining possessions.
I remained in State College while all of the chaos was happening, but I was in constant contact with my family. It has now been a little over two months since the incident and I am still in constant contact with my family. I do not ignore my mom’s phone calls anymore and I talk to my other family members more often as well. I now find it significantly easier to open up to them. I have always been very close with my two sisters, but the tragedy has also brought me closer to my mom, dad, and brother.
I chose to remain in State College because I could not bear to see the scorched remains of what used to be my home. Initially, I thought this was unfair and I felt extremely guilty. The other members of my family had no choice but to face the devastation, but I was sheltered from it because I was three hours away. They had to watch our house burn down and I could not even face the ruins. It felt wrong that they had to suffer more than I did. While I was talking on the phone with my mom, I told her I felt like I was cheating and that I had it easy compared to them because I did not have to see it. She responded by saying that she was glad she could protect me from seeing the destruction and that she wishes she could have done the same for my siblings.
I was reunited with my family for the first time over spring break, which was three weeks after the fire. Going back to Pittsburgh for the first time after the fire was one of the most surreal experiences in my entire life. I was dropped off at my new house by my friend’s dad. I stood outside the door with my bags, unsure of the protocol for this situation. I did not know if I should knock or just walk in since it was technically my house. I decided to knock and my mom answered the door. I immediately noticed the toll that the past few weeks had taken on her and the rest of my family. They all looked exhausted and stressed, but they were in good spirits and happy to see me. My parents were no longer the zombies that my sister had described a few weeks ago.
I cautiously explored the new house and by the time I left a week later, it still felt foreign to me. The house felt big and empty and I was terrified of being home alone. It was only bearable when my family was there with me. There were little pieces of home scattered throughout the new house, but most of the objects saved were seemingly insignificant. I constantly found myself wishing that my collection of track awards, medals, and scrapbooks had survived the flames instead of my old charm bracelet from third grade or my sister’s box of poker chips. Useless items were rescued from the ashes, but irreplaceable objects that I considered my prized possessions were gone forever. I would have traded everything I had with me at school for the priceless tokens of my past.
While just the thought of the charred box of poker chips upset me, seeing other trivial items recovered from the ashes made my day. An afghan, handmade by my grandmother, was rescued from the house, completely unscathed. I welcomed this small piece of home and I went to bed wrapped in it each night. Even though it had been washed multiple times, it still had the distinct smell of smoke that will certainly linger in its stitches forever. I did not care though, because it felt like home. I nearly cried on the last day of spring break when my dad walked through the door with a filthy red pot. It was the pot that my mom used to steam broccoli and cauliflower. Even though I never ate anything that she cooked in that pot, I was still overjoyed to see that it had survived. Last week, my younger sister called me crying because the school district had replaced all of our yearbooks and the WPIAL track and field league had replaced our 2012 championship medals. The yearbooks do not have signatures and I do not even have a fraction of my medals back, but my heart swelled with gratitude when I heard the news. Once again, complete strangers had gone out of their way to help my family.
I still think about the devastation everyday, but it is no longer at the forefront of my mind. I never actually saw the ruins of my house and the situation still seems inconceivable, but my family has moved forward. Last week, the remainder of the house was torn down and the construction of our new house began. The fire was a tragedy, but it was not as devastating as it could have been. I initially thought that this was the worst thing that could ever happen, but I now realize that I am so fortunate and that so many people are worse off than I am. My mother was home alone when it happened and I am eternally grateful that she was able to escape. I would never have gotten through this tragedy without the unwavering support system that is my family. This situation has reinforced my belief that everything happens for a reason and I am now able to now fully appreciate every aspect of life, especially after overcoming several major setbacks previously in the year.
On February 13, 2013, I lost so much. My possessions and my house were gone, but I still had a home. My family was my home. In these past few months, I realized that I truly have an entirely new outlook on life. When I think about the fire, I no longer focus on what I lost. I now focus on the insight that I have gained and the love and gratitude that have brought my family together. My high school calculus teacher has been selling wristbands to benefit my family that contain the saying “home is where the heart is.” It might be cliché, but it perfectly encompasses the past few months of my life.