The house still stands, wrecked, silent, blackened and charred. Once the flames were extinguished an excavator ripped off part of the roof and flattened walls on the second floor to expose enough of the house so that the last ember could be put out. Now the second level is open to the weather. Bedding and household items have been disgorged onto the wreckage piled behind two giant locust trees that partly hide the house from view. An old cape built who knows when, a house without a crawl space, most likely with sills on a layer of stone, a house whose days were numbered. The woman who lived there has moved to town. During the fire she lost two grown daughters who died of smoke inhalation as they went back into the house to save their pets. Their bodies were found on the second floor. They were gone before the fire companies arrived and before I arrived as well.
About a year ago on the afternoon of a cold March day I came upon the house when returning from town. Smoke was pouring from a second floor window and seeping through the roof panels. No flames were visible. With no fire or smoke on the first floor, it was clear that the fire had started upstairs. Two men were already on the scene; one having called 911 waited on the road to direct the responders; the other had saved a pug dog, a pair of cats, and three pet birds. The woman who lived there had been told to wait in her car after crying out that her two daughters and more pets were still in the house. She wanted to go back inside.
Telling her to stay put, I entered the house and stepped into the living room. A cloud of tobacco colored smoke poured down from the second floor. I called out, Is anyone up there! No answer. I called out again, Is anybody up there! Still no answer. I called out a third time and maybe a fourth, my words lost in the dense smoke, a silent smoke, and with its muffling effect I heard no pop of kindling, no crackle of flame. No answer from upstairs, nothing but silence and smoke. So I left the house and told myself that I couldn’t do any more and that I would have heard their voices if they were alive.
I can’t say my luck came at the expense of the family who lived there. Their story was already written. My luck was simple timing. Suppose I’d left town earlier and came upon the fire when the sisters on the second floor were still alive? Suppose they answered my call and said, Yes come up and help us to get downstairs? What would I have done about that? Climbed through a cloud of smoke that would have killed me as fast as it probably killed them? And if, having heard their cries for help I’d have refused, how to live with that? To climb those stairs even if they would have held me, would probably have caused my own death.
For the rest of that afternoon I’m a spectator. I stand apart as fire trucks and rescue vehicles from nearby towns arrive. By then flames have appeared at the north gable window on the second floor. Firefighters extend a hose to a nearby pond and begin pouring water onto and into the house, especially on the second floor. Firefighters climb a shed roof on the south side and pour water through the window as an endless brown-green smoke continues gushing from the north and south gable windows. It seeps around the metal roof panels which cover a layer of smoldering shingles. Later on there’s talk among the neighbors about how little was known about the people who lived there and how it’s not uncommon for people to perish in house fires as they try to save their pets.
Some of us on the road, including those who rescued the pets, helped the woman settle in town. Some helped more than others. The wreckage remains, a new owner will eventually clean it up, but for now the crumpled roofing and broken glass and buckets and cat boxes and bedding all recreate the tragedy. Those of us who live on the Augur Hole Road pass the house every day and review the event in the passing. The fire settles into the well of neighborhood lore along with other house fires and Irene, the flood which wiped out parts of our road six years ago.
I was lucky then too, but that’s another story.