A Fire

By Shamus Posted Saturday Jun 9, 2007

Filed under: Personal 32 comments

“Mommy, it looks like the neighbor’s garage is on fire!”

Just a few hours before the fire.  The garage is peeking out from behind the bushes and trees.
Just a few hours before the fire. The garage is peeking out from behind the bushes and trees.
My girl can be pretty high strung sometimes, so when I hear this I figure it means the neighbors are burning leaves on the far side, and the resulting ribbon of smoke makes it look like the fire is coming from the garage. I glance out the window. She is not exaggerating. There is a fire inside of the building. A serious fire. Flames reach out from the yawning windows.

There is shouting. People are very close to the building, frantically trying to do something. Are they trying to fight it? This is way beyond a garden hose or fire extinguisher sized problem. This blaze is not kidding around. A beautiful large-size pickup is so close to the building that it’s tail lights are probably melting. Screw the garage! Move the truck! The garage isn’t near any other important structures, so no houses are in danger as far as I can see.

It’s Saturday, May 26. Memorial Day weekend. It’s mid-afternoon on a nice sunny day. This morning we were running a yard sale. Now the neighborhood is in sudden chaos. I hear the wail of approaching fire engines. No, it sounds like an ambulance. Actually, it’s both. Eventually, it’s a lot of both.

Someone manages to move the pickup. It looks like people have pulled back and are getting out of the way of the professionals.

In charges the full suite of emergency vehicles. The firemen roll out their gear and a minute later they give the fire its first real argument. The roof has started to burn. I look at the fire, and at the surrounding trees, and suddenly the distance between the garage and everything else seems pretty small. This thing could actually get away from them.

I start to wonder what sorts of hardware might be in the garage. My neighbor Frank does arc welding and other sorts of mechanical tinkering. He owns a Bobcat. He owns a very large riding mower. The presence of a gas grill or a propane tank is not unlikely. The presence of extra fuel is almost guaranteed. I’ll bet there’s a good supply of oil in there as well. Geeze. Who knows what else?

The water does its job. The orange flames are replaced with billowing grey smoke, and the fire winks out. Everybody exhales.

The firemen move in to get a look inside the building. They let their guard down for a second, or at least aim their attention in the wrong direction. A burning stream, no more than a trickle, flows out of the mouth of the garage. Inside, Frank’s supply of fuel has gotten loose and begun to flow. The stream passes between the firemen and the truck, passing under their hose. It’s running between two groups of men. They can’t attack it unless they want to blast each other, which would probably just shove the burning liquid all over the place. A yell goes up and they retreat. They are on a mild hill, so the stream is moving pretty fast. It flows through the garden, setting the beautiful flowers and shrubs alight. They bring the water to bear, but by the time they halt the stream the garage fire has returned to full strength, and is perhaps larger than before. There must be an awful lot of fuel in there.

 I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures, but my wife took this shot with her phone. I’m glad she did.
I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures, but my wife took this shot with her phone. I’m glad she did.
I think of taking pictures, but then I’m ashamed at the thought. Frank’s garage, one of his vehicles, and his beautiful landscaping are being ruined. I can’t help him, but I feel like it would be rude to stand around taking pictures instead of standing around doing nothing.

One of the neighbors, a lovely woman and an octogenarian, is worked up and chattering about Frank being in the garage. She must be hysterical. The garage has the main door, a side door, and a few windows. If Frank had been in there he would have come out before the fire got too big. There are certainly plenty of escape routes.

The first fire truck runs dry but others are ready. The battle lines move frequently as they advance and retreat on the fire, constantly struggling to contain the rivulet of flaming drool that pours from the mouth of the building.

Out front, the two-lane highway has become a parking lot. There isn’t room to really pull over around here, so the ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars have parked on the road and brought the flow of traffic to a halt. Neighbors gather in the yard and stare helplessly. Everyone wants to help, but nobody can do anything. I’m inside with my kids, comforting them and explaining, as best as I can figure, what’s going on.

We can hear the muffled popping of small explosions coming from within the garage. These aren’t action-movie fireballs, but concussive blasts that probably mean more fuel has just been released. They keep coming. I’m glad the garage is made of large, solid bricks, so we don’t have to worry about shrapnel flying all over the place.

The firemen start using foam in place of plain water in an attempt to smother the flowing fuel fires. The beautiful pond where the ducks used to live is now a soup of water, fuel, foam, and runoff from the garage. Once in a while the surface of the pond begins to burn, and the firemen give it another dose of white suds. The garden has been obliterated in the crossfire of flame and high-pressure water. I’m glad the ducks are all gone; the last one was sold a couple of months ago. Still, I’m sad to see their home ruined. I’d hoped Frank’s wife would get more next year. My kids loved feeding the ducks.

The firemen seem able to contain the thing fairly well, but they can’t quench it. The fuel inside sustains it, and all they can do is fight a long stalemate until the fuel is exhausted. After a half hour or so some of the people trapped in traffic abandon their cars and walk through my yard to see what the fuss is about. There seems to be some safe radius which is silently understood by everyone. The crowd grows, but nobody speaks.

The fire is out at last.  Not much left.  Foam everywhere.
The fire is out at last. Not much left. Foam everywhere.
I can tell when the tide turns. I see the reserve firefighters relax. No longer standing tense, they begin to stand and talk. The fuel has finally burned away. The real danger is gone, although so is the garage. Only the brick walls remain. They spend some time dousing the ashes. Firetrucks are coming and going as full trucks replace empty ones.

It ends. The crowd begins to thin. All that remains are the blackened brick walls and smoldering ashes. My wife, who was next door comforting the neighbor, comes home and gives me the news. Frank was in the garage.

This explains what the activity was outside before the emergency vehicles arrived, and why nobody moved the pickup at first. They were trying to find a way to get Frank out. I was naive in my thinking. From the outside it looked easy to get escape, but I’m sure inside things were very different. Maybe vehicles or shelves blocked the windows. Maybe an explosion knocked him out. In any case, then man is gone. He was 62.

I only met him once. Known as “Buddy” to everyone, he was a jovial guy. What a rotten end. I broke the news to my kids, who knew him better than I did. They saw him often when they were over feeding the ducks.

I learn that Frank and his wife were in the garage when it started. He shoved her out the door to go call 911 while he tried to contain the fire. Nobody knows what happened after that. He was either trapped or incapacitated. By the time 911 was called the fire had grown too large for anyone to help him.

Two weeks later there is an enormous crater where the garage stood. There is a line of dead grass going from Frank’s pond, down the hill, and across several yards. It marks where the runoff from the fire has poisoned the ground. Big earth-moving vehicles have come in to remove the garage, the ruined equipment, and the tainted dirt. It’s a horrible mess. He spent so much time on the landscaping, and it’s really rubbing salt in the wound to see so much of his work destroyed now that he’s gone.


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32 thoughts on “A Fire

  1. wildweasel says:

    In a situation like that, I’m thankful that only one person is dead, as opposed to two or more. It’s still quite a shame about Frank and his landscaping. My blogger hat goes off to you, Frank.

    *moment of silence.*

  2. AngiePen says:

    I’m so sorry. That’s a horrible thing to have happen to a neighbor. :(


  3. wintersweet says:

    Very frightening. It’s always hard to grasp when something that devastating occurs to a neighbor or a friend. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the comic book artist/writer Lea Hernandez (divalea.livejournal.com), but her house burned down last year, taking with it several of the family’s pets and much of her art. It’s hard to imagine recovering from something like that or from losing your spouse in something like that.

  4. Lycoris says:

    :( My condolences.

  5. Daniel says:

    Sorry to hear. A personal disater. I feel so sorry for his poor wife.

  6. Keldon says:

    Im stunned, what a terrible story. So Sorry for his poor lady.

  7. Matt` says:

    6 billion people, and we can only ever know so few of them before they’re gone. A lifetime is the longest thing anyone ever has, but its so short, not enough.

    (Death makes me think)

    Anyway, my condolences

  8. Medium Dave says:

    Oh dear, what a sad event for everyone. I hope the kids aren’t too traumatized by this. Condolences and sympathy on the loss.

  9. Dave says:

    … it sounds as if you knew him more than you know. His landscaping… his ducks… the joy he brought your kids. The spark he gave your imagination wondering what he used all those tools/toys for… it sounds like something in you knew the seriousness of the situation and decided capturing images of the inferno was disrespectful. It sounds like you sensed it despite the incredulous disbelief.

    I’m sure I’m many miles from where Frank put his energy into the earth. Yet, I will think of him this weekend as I tend what passes as my garden.

    I’m glad you and yours were touched by his soul.


    PS – you are a heck of a writer.

  10. Renacier says:

    My condolences.

  11. Myxx says:

    Gotta tell ya Shamus, I agree with Dave’s PS… after reading that, I feel as if I’ve actually shared the loss. My prayers go out to Frank’s wife.

  12. Brian says:

    You have my sympathies.

  13. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Don’t faint. Tony Soprano was sad to see the ducks leave too.

  14. Errol says:

    My condolescences. :(

  15. Chaz says:

    The poor guy woke up that morning thinking it was just another day (a nice sunny one), not that it was his last one. Just makes you want to go and hug your kids (and check your smoke alarms).

    Sounds like a crappy way to go as well. I hope that anyone reading it will remember that if your stuff is burning, it is only stuff. Look after yourself first, and only your stuff if there isn’t any danger in doing so.

  16. Marmot says:

    I’m really sorry to hear about your loss. Can’t say anything else except a moment of silence, no one should end like that.

  17. Deathblade_penguin says:


    your writing really made this terrible tradegy become more real and thus meaningful to me. My heart goes out the families affected by this.


  18. clodia says:

    My condolences.

  19. Zaxares says:

    My deepest sympathies to Frank’s wife and to all those touched by this tragedy. Incidents like this really drive home the point that life is too short and too uncertain for one not to enjoy every second of it.

  20. Hal says:

    I think it says something very good about Frank that he sent his wife away from the fire. He saved her life by doing so.

    My sympathy goes out to her. Is she being taken care of?

  21. Weldun says:

    It is always a blow to see the passing of someone we are even familiar with, let alone someone who was a positive part of the lives of those close to us. Even though we never met Frank, or even really knew much of him until this post, through you we feel his passing. Your ability to wield the English language is a gift that all here treasure, and it has moved us all. Please, if you do not think that it would be too distressful, pass on the condolences of us all to your family and the bereaved.

  22. Heather says:

    Just for those who have asked: His wife is doing very well and is surrounded by family and the help of all the people who Frank has helped over the years. In fact when I talked to her yesterday she said she was overwhelmed at finding how many he had helped and by the offers of help themselves.

    The kids are coping though all of us in the neighborhood stop a moment everytime the fire trucks pass–which is often.

  23. Rich says:

    So sad. My sincerest sympathy to all involved.

  24. TalrogSmash says:

    Although ultimately all the fuel caught and burned, I gather that Frank’s last act was to shut off the fuel to whatever started the fire in the first place. Many Thanks for his bravety, and my condolences to all who have met loss in this.

  25. Telas says:

    I should really write something clever or perceptive here, but no, I really shouldn’t…

    I’m sorry to hear of a good person gone. You and your family, and especially Frank’s widow have my deepest condolences. Nameless and faceless as he is to me, your writing has put him in my prayers tonight.

    I know you’re not the social butterfly type, but I hope someone is reaching out to Mrs. Frank.

  26. Ravs says:

    My deepest sympathies to Frank’s family. It’s awful how what must have started as a normal day ended in such tragedy.

  27. Shamus says:

    Thanks so much to everyone for the kind words and thoughtful reflection.

  28. Namfoodle says:

    I’m sorry to hear about Frank, my condolences to everyone out there in PA from here in CA.

    It’s ironic that the popularity of DM of the Rings is allowing people all over the world to memorialize Frank.

  29. Dave says:

    It's ironic that the popularity of DM of the Rings is allowing people all over the world to memorialize Frank.

    Humans are one tribe. In our current “civilized” state we often forget this. We have the ability to empathize and sypathize across any perceived border of country, race or religion.

    While I’m pretty certain Shamus has not written this to bring Frank to the world, He has reminded us that we are all connected.

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