All Things Human

An anthropologist explores the science of anomalous occurrences, death and dying, grief, and societal beliefs.

Fate or Coincidence?

If my neighbor hadn’t called 911 when he did...
Carole A. Travis-Henikoff
This post is a response to FIRE by Carole A. Travis-Henikoff

NOTE: If you haven't read my last post, "Fire," please do so. Without knowing the chain of events set down in "Fire" the reading of this post will be greatly diminished.

It was a clear beautiful morning - no wind. As the sun climbed ever higher into the sky the air turned hot and still. Unbeknownst to me the dogs were slowing drifting from sleep into a state of unconsciousness to be followed by death as the smoldering, inner-wall fire gave off carbon monoxide in exchange for limited amounts of oxygen. Unaware, I loaded wash and cleaned up the kitchen in the new part of the house. The children had left and I had decided to straighten things up now and get to my computer later. As I worked, I received one small warning, though I didn't understand its meaning until later.

I like to dry my wash in the dryer for 15 minutes and than hang it over chairs or a portable rack to finish in the sun and fresh air. Yellow jackets had plagued the back deck all summer. I was sure they had their hive up in the eaves but had been unable to locate it. They were so numerous that I had done a bit of research on them. Unlike bees, yellow jackets only attack when they feel their hive is threatened or is under attack.

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On that fateful morning, when I took out the first load of laundry, the yellow jackets didn't do their usual investigation of my presence but darted at me in threatening ways. Their intent on stinging me became such that I hurried with the wash and ran back into the house troubled and perplexed.
At 10:45 AM I had a bite to eat. It was the last time I looked at the time. About 11:15 AM I heard the roar that almost buckled my knees.

After the fire I was told of many events that worked to save both lives and structures. For instance, if, after opening the back side door and seeing the wall of flames, I hadn't grabbed a phone and raced through the old part of the house and out the front door in order to get a hose, I wouldn't be here.

If I'd stopped to get my purse and car keys, I wouldn't be here. To quote fire inspector, Rusty Palmer, when I lamented to him that I hadn't even grabbed my purse, "If you had stopped to do so, you would have died."

Then he added something everyone should know. If I had been of a mind to "grab" things, my mind would have thought of "other things" and in the moments it would have taken to collect those "other things" the carbon monoxide would have assured my death. I learned of my extremely close brush with death on the day of the fire, but I was still unaware of the following three weeks later when I wrote "Fire." When I later heard what had actually happened on that day, I got the chills.

Warren Kaufman, my neighbor-friend-farmer was not cutting his own hay a mile from the ranch. He HAD gone to work the fields of Tetonia, eight miles away, that morning just as he had for the past two weeks. But on that particular morning, just at the right time, Karl Cook was haying with his one-ton bailer near the Kaufman farm a mile from the ranch when his rig got stuck in an unseen trench. Karl called Warren on his cell phone and asked if he could possibly come and pull him out with his huge, 4-wheel tractor. Warren, who is always ready to help anyone in need, headed back home to help his neighbor. He got his big green tractor out and tootled up Kaufman Road to Alta North Road. Looking north he spotted smoke. He almost went back to get his pick-up but something told him there wasn't time for that and that he should just turn north and find out what was going on. As soon as he got to a high enough rise to see the fire he called the fire department. After four patch-throughs he got the sirens heading our way.

The fire engines got lost; Warren directed and led them to the fire, which was now blazing fifty feet above the second-story rooftop. If Warren hadn't returned to Alta when he did, if he had gone back for his truck, if he hadn't called when he did, if he hadn't guided the firemen to the blaze, my watering would have been over-ridden by the extreme radiant heat emanating from the ranch house. As it turned out the firemen got foam and water on the blackened south wall of the new workshop moments, perhaps seconds prior to combustion and total incineration.

Electrician Jerry Lucy and his wife Cindy saw the blaze from their home and called the fire department. They were told the trucks were on their way. By the time they got to Alta North Road, the fire trucks and Warren were roaring towards the ranch. The Lucy's call would have been 15 minutes too late and all of the old buildings on the ranch would have gone up in flames... one after another.

My caretaker/over-seer Darlene Girard drives to Jackson six days a week to shuttle para-gliders to Teton Village and up to the top of the mountain. She is usually done around 10:30 AM, at which time she takes a run off the mountain herself to hang and fly over the beauty of Jackson Hole. She loves to fly. The weather was perfect, but something in her told her she should go home. Going against her normal routine and usual desires, she headed home. When she saw the smoke she knew it was coming from somewhere near or on the ranch. She hit the gas and soon saw what she already knew. The old living room was much like the head of a gigantic match. She thought I was in that room sitting at my computer or taking one of my 15-minute mind naps on the couch. She was beside herself and then, as she pulled up she saw me at the far end of the house, hose in hand, trying the save what I could.

Darlene ran to me and dragged me away from the horrid heat as the just arrived ambulance driver screamed at me to "Get away! Get away now!!!" Over to the lawn - too hot - over behind the old workshop - better.

Darlene was sobbing. There was too much adrenaline coursing through my system, I couldn't cry. I stood up; things weren't good. I had wanted to be a doctor and am married to one. My body needed help. We walked over to the lawn in front of Darlene's cabin. The utterly horrid visual of the raging flames and total destruction was absolutely terrifying. There was nothing more I could do. I watched as the firemen figured out that they had to go around the tack house and old workshop to get to the new building. They just made it. The timing was so close that I could hardly stand to watch; weakness flooded through me. Darlene put her arm around my waist and said "Come on, I'll put you on my bed." When we got into the coolness of her cabin I said, "No, just lay me down here on your rug." The paramedics from the ambulance came in. They took my blood pressure.

"Your blood-pressure's sky high."

"What did you expect?"

"Your heart is racing."

"Of course!"

As I was quibbling with the paramedics Darlene's thoughts went back to the fire. She raced out the door and ran to where the firemen were working to save the new workshop and halt the progress of the fire.

"Did you turn off the propane?"

"Yeah. Over there at the house."

"What about the 1000 gallon tank?"

Running faster than ever before in her life, Darlene dashed to the tank and turned the knob. Turning back she looked into the ashen faces of the firemen.

There is a real possibility that the tank wouldn't have gone, but if it had, 20 people would have lost their lives and a half-square mile would have been obliterated.

Other than the less than helpful 911, I must state that, despite getting lost, the firemen did a spectacular job. The fire was so hot they could only work in five-minute shifts. They were brave beyond words. They were caring. They were wonderful. A few days later we were driving back from the ranch to where we are staying. A big, bright-red fire engine was coming the other way. My heroes were coming to check the site once more as it had continued to flare up, even though a sprinkler was soaking it 24/7.

"Stop!" said I.

Getting out of the car swathed in bandages I waved my arms to halt the fire engine. I climbed up the driver's side and poked my head to see four of my heroes with worried faces - I didn't look too good at the time. I thanked them profusely and offered words of admiration and love. It wasn't difficult; they are all quite handsome.

Next time: The dark and scary hall of recovery following a death-defying trauma.

Carole Travis-Henikoff is the author of Dinner With A Cannibal: the Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo, and Death, Dying and Unexplained Phenomena (spring 2010).

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