Tuesday, June 9, 2015

After a house fire, rebuilding memories -- one T-shirt at a time

Written by Adrienne Mitchell, volunteer

On Tuesday, May 14, Deborah Strom was making dinner at her home in in Manassas, Virginia.

She was just about to call sons Eric, 15, and Ryan, 14, down to dinner when the smoke detector went off. There was a fire on the second floor.

Deborah called 911. Her husband, Ross, grabbed a garden hose and tried unsuccessfully to put out the flames.

Minutes later, they were standing in the driveway, watching as firefighters rolled out their hoses. One fell on his back as he ran backwards, battling to save their home.

They watched through the window, hearts breaking, as Eric’s pet -- a bearded dragon lizard -- died, trapped in its glass tank.

“The smoke was billowing everywhere,” says Deborah. After a while, “I had to step behind the fire trucks so I couldn’t watch,” she adds. 

By the time the flames were extinguished, Eric’s room was destroyed, and there was smoke and water damage throughout the second floor.

It’s a scene that’s repeated all too often. Every eight minutes in America, the Red Cross responds to a house fire.

Two Red Cross volunteers arrived at around nine o’clock that evening, about three hours after the fire broke out.

It was getting dark. A neighbor offered to let the Stroms meet with the volunteers in their home across the street.

They wouldn’t be able to spend the night in their own home, so the volunteers delivered toiletry bags and blankets, and asked if they needed help finding a place to stay.

They also talked about some things Deborah says she might not have thought of, like putting cable service on hold and arranging for the school bus to pick the kids up from a hotel.

It will be months before the Stroms are able to sleep in their own beds again. Now living in a hotel, they await the results of the fire investigation, and take stock of their losses.

One of the most precious things the fire took was Eric’s collection of old T-shirts. While not valuable financially, they’re irreplaceable because of the memories they hold.

A military family, the Stroms have moved three times in the past decade. The collection included one shirt from each of the schools Eric has attended and several more, a few dozen in all.

Deborah intended to make a memory quilt with them as she had done for her older son, Andrew. “It’s nice to have a large stack of them to pick out colors and designs,” she says.

She’s working on replacing them; some of the schools are sending new ones. And she’ll have one more to add to the collection -- a Red Cross T-shirt is on its way to the family.

It will join the replacement shirts in Eric’s quilt. It will be “kind of cool to put it in the quilt when I make it,” says Deborah. “It represents the T-shirts we lost,” she says.

As she works to move on from her loss, Deborah has this advice for people who may know someone affected by a house fire. “Everyone keeps asking what we need. But, living in a hotel, we don’t want a lot of stuff,” she says.

She suggests gift cards. They don’t take up a lot of space, and the family can use them to buy what they need.

Another welcome gift: an invitation to dinner, or a home-cooked meal like the one that one of her employees brought in to work for her. After weeks of eating in restaurants, Deborah says her family would really enjoy some home cooking.

“A year from now, she says, we’re all going to be fine, but the next few months are going to be difficult.” Until then, she says, she’s learning to accept help from people, and “take things one day at a time.”

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