It seemed like a bad dream. Rainier Gordon was having the worst day of his life. Something was off kilter. As a Red Cross volunteer, he’s used to putting together kits and other items to help the victims of all kinds of tragedies at the organization’s logistics center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He also goes to emergency shelters to comfort the victims of house fires.
Now he was the one receiving help.
On a quiet October morning, his house on Mary Catherine Drive in Clinton, Maryland, erupted in flames. His wife sent him an email telling him the bad news and he called her back.
“She said come quickly,” Rainier recalls. “The house is on fire.”
He lives in the house with wife, father-in-law and brother-in-law.
Fortunately, no one was home and no one was injured when the fire broke out in the concrete, 6,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom house. It apparently started in the walls behind the stove, microwave and refrigerator. There was a power outage before he left for work, and Rainier believes when the power came back on mid-morning, it caused a surge of electricity, which triggered the fire.
Flames swept through the kitchen, dining room and living room, destroying the roof and gutting two bedrooms. The other bedrooms received smoke and water damage.
When Rainier got to his home, he wasn’t allowed to go in and was frantic to see how much damage had been done. He held it together, he said, to be strong for the rest of the family.
“It was a lot to take in. At first, I was relieved because my wife had told me the house was gone. I wasn’t expecting to see anything when I got there.” Rainier says. “But then I was anxious to find out what the damage was. You’re in a state of just trying to figure out what’s on the other side of the walls."
“But then you’ve got to take control and make sure your family feels secure,” Rainier says. “They can look to you for strength.”
Standing outside the house, he worried that they would lose priceless photographs and mementos that filled their house. While serving oversees in the Army, Rainier acted as the U.S. delegate to NATO for 10 years and also as the U.S. representative to ABCANZ (the American, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand Armies Program). He traveled extensively and says he was in a different part of the world every six months, and collected potteries, rugs, furniture and other treasures. (He’s now retired and works as a civilian at the Pentagon.)
When he got in the house, he discovered he’d lost a few photos but that many of the other keepsakes could be restored. He wasn’t upset about what they lost, except for the photos, he says, because he had a different attitude after his experience with a fire. He saw a lot of his belongings as clutter.
He called his boss at the Red Cross when he arrived and his boss told him he already knew about the fire and that Red Cross volunteers were on their way. They arrived about a half hour later.
He had a new understanding of what Red Cross volunteers do for victims of house fires. They helped the family think clearly. First, they gave them pamphlets that told them everything they needed to do after a house fire, such as who to call to shut off utilities. Then they gave them a credit card to pay for food, and comfort bags filled with toiletries. A checklist of things they might need was very centering, Rainier says. He learned to rely on others for help.
“What I learned is you like to be strong but when you’ve been through something like a fire, it’s best to be a victim because you are a victim,” Rainier says. “And the reason I say that is because people come to help and if you act like you don’t need any help, people leave and when they’re gone you realize, man, I could have really used this or this or this.”
Rainier says he’s gained perspective and wants to start putting it to use by volunteering at house fires.
“When you’re a Red Cross volunteer and you talk to folks, you can only talk from one side because they’re the victims and you’re the ones giving help. By me now being the victim, I’m able to see both sides of it.” He’s ultra-sensitive to how to talk to victims, he says. You need the right balance between offering advice and being a good listener.
“Not that I wanted my house to burn down,” Rainier says, “but I’m thankful now I can talk to persons from both sides.”