On a dark, cold Friday night in December, the Fish family lost almost every material thing in their lives. And their beloved family pet, Mabel, a five-year-old bernedoodle.
Just before 10 p.m. on Dec. 15, a fire broke out in the family room of their modest but newly renovated backsplit home in Niagara Falls.
Claire, 14, and Evelyn, 12, and a friend were in their home. Their parents, Kate and Stephen, were down the street having dessert with friends.
Within seconds the house filled with smoke and toxic fumes. Startled by the cacophony of smoke alarms, the girls called 911 and immediately followed their well-rehearsed fire escape plan, smashing the screen of a second-storey bedroom, climbing out the window to safety.
Kate, 47, is principal of Crossroads Public School in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Lake Report asked her to tell our readers how the disastrous fire has affected them, their feelings just weeks after the devastation and how the family is rebuilding their lives. Here is their story.
We hug a lot. Even more than we used to.
As a family, we just want to be together all the time now … strength and safety in numbers and a deeper appreciation of each other.
It’s hard to start over again, to rebuild our shared life. It’s exhausting and sometimes feels like an insurmountable challenge but there is no other option. We just move forward.
In doing so after this experience, however, it feels like our path is somehow more authentic. Unencumbered. And full of gratitude.
When we arrived at my parents’ home in Niagara-on-the-Lake just after midnight, only two hours after the call to 911, the girls had no shoes, no coats. We had nothing.
They literally escaped with the clothes on their backs and new memories that still come flooding back unexpectedly and unapologetically.
The first few days there was simply shock.
Shopping for shoes and coats the next day during the last retail push before Christmas Eve was an impossibility. We still smelled like smoke, if only to us.
That smell; I can still smell it. I am reminded in one quick sniff of a candle, food burning, a toaster and taken back immediately to a moment of sheer terror and helplessness.
Regardless, we could not have put the necessary smiles on our faces to fit into the hustle and bustle. We would have dampened everyone’s joyful spirit. It would not have been fair to the excited gift-givers and unprepared salesclerks asking if we were ready for Christmas.
So, a friend went shopping for us. Two of everything. Socks. Pants. Shirts. Sweaters. Coats. Boots. Shoes. Toiletries. Just to get us through the weekend. I literally couldn’t think past that.
That was the first offer of assistance we received. It was not the last.
The people who visited the first few days were our family and closest friends. They were the foundation of the community that eventually revealed itself around us in the weeks to come.
Literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of people coalescing around us in support. Our safety net. Our new home. A home built without walls by the expressions of support, compassion, sensitivity, kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, love, sympathy and friendship we received from expected and unexpected sources.
An intangible home that gave us shelter, safety and security when everything tangible was so uncertain.
They were rallying around us. And despite the initial difficulty I had with appearing vulnerable by receiving and accepting help, I became more comfortable doing so as I came to the profound realization that community doesn’t exist without both the people who give help as well as those who accept it when it is their turn. It was our turn.
In the various personal and professional roles I occupy, I am typically the facilitator of the provision of assistance. I am accustomed to and trained for responding to emergency situations.
I was not, however, prepared for this one. I don’t think anything can prepare you for an experience such as this. I HAD to rely on the generosity, experience, expertise and assistance of others.
I was physically spent, emotionally tapped and wholly overwhelmed. I needed our community. It was an extremely valuable revelation.
So, I let go. I accepted help. I trusted our community and I started saying, “Yes, please.”
The offers of assistance, in various forms, were and continue to be, overwhelming. Daily. Hourly. People checking in. Offering things, help, support.
Our wall-less home has a solid foundation that continues to be built as the physical one is repaired, as well.
The experience of having your home destroyed by fire is horrible. The experience of escaping a house on fire, I have been told by children far more courageous and sensible than I am, is horrible. The experience of grieving Mabel is horrible.
But the gratitude and lessons we have learned are far greater in number than the possessions we have lost.
Correction. There is something that can prepare you for an experience such as this: make sure your smoke detectors are working and that you have enough of them.
Make sure you have an escape plan and practise it. And practise it. And practise it. Doing so may one day give you and your wall-less home, your community, the opportunity be grateful you did.
And thank every first responder you know and even the ones you don’t. Make sure they know how valued they are in our shared community so they continue to work tirelessly to keep us safe.
As my eldest daughter, a hero in her own right, profoundly said, “While we ran out of a burning building, they ran into it.”
We are forever grateful to the firefighters, police officers, dispatchers and paramedics who contributed to ensuring there was no greater loss of life. Thank you.
Kate Fish is principal of Crossroads Public School.