WINTER GARDEN — This is what happens after your house burns to the ground.
Your clothes and hair stink of smoke from the hours you stand, helplessly watching firefighters soak every square inch of the building that once housed you and your daughter. The intensity of it all paralyzes you. You don’t cry, you don’t pace, you’re numb. Suddenly, your street seems foreign, with neighbors lining the sidewalks and police cars blocking the entrance. You don’t know whether to stand, to sit, to climb back into the safety of your car.
You don’t even know where to be.
Someone shows you camera-phone footage of video of the famished flames licking at your roof. Hours later, you can’t remember whether you actually saw that with your own eyes or not. Your perception of time is warped. Some lady shoves a piece of paper in your face. You look at it, find the name of your home-insurance provider and scrawl your signature on the line.
Fox News calls your personal cell phone. How the heck did they get your number?
And then some neighbors hand you plastic shopping bags with clothes and a toothbrush and toothpaste. You don’t realize it until four days later, but that’s the best thing that happened that night.
“I didn’t have to wake up and wonder what I was going to wear,” Beth Fitzpatrick says six days after a lightning bolt ignited a fire that burned her Winter Garden home to the ground. “Those are friends: They look out for you. And if you have clean underwear — that’s what’s really important. You have no idea how huge it is to have pajamas to sleep in and clothes to wear the next day.”
The road to recovery and rebuilding will be a long one — likely a year. And Fitzpatrick is dealing with it all the best way she knows how — with logic, the occasional breakdown and plenty of her trademark sarcasm and killer sense of humor.
“Life is good,” she says. “I have a job, my daughter is fine. … This really sucks. It was a home (paid) 100% by me, and I lost it all. Everything I’d worked (so hard) for. I’ve lost everything. But it’s going to be OK. There’s going to be lows, and the next 12 to 14 weeks are supposed to be the worst. … And to my neighbors: I am sorry about the smell.”
MY ROOF IS ON FIRE. I GUESS I NEED TO GO.
Fitzpatrick is not tech-savvy. She doesn’t bother with the latest and greatest (she still has an AOL email address), and most of the time, she keeps her phone silenced.
So she missed the initial call from ADT — at precisely 4:10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4. The security company then called Fitzpatrick’s mother, who lives just a few miles away.
At 4:20 p.m., Fitzpatrick saw the missed call and called ADT back. The operator told her there was a disturbance at her front door.
That’s odd, she thought.
She called her mother, who was already on her way over to check it out. She arrived to the Westfield home at 4:30 p.m. The dog, Sasha, was going crazy, so her mother took her from the home and went to pick up Fitzpatrick’s daughter, 11-year-old Diana, from Foundation Academy.
Fitzpatrick, who works at Disney, began packing up her things to leave for the day. Then, the buzzing began. One missed call. A second. A third. All from neighbors.
She was talking with some co-workers when she finally realized what was happening.
Guys, she said. My roof is on fire. I guess I need to go.
And with that, she left the office, climbed into her car and started driving. She didn’t speed or run any lights. She took her time. After all, this drive was the last few minutes before the devastation became real.
“I didn’t want to see it,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t know what I was walking into.”
Innately logical and fiercely independent, Fitzpatrick then took out her phone and called her insurance company. And in a monotone voice, she told the representative: My house is on fire. I think I’m going to need to start something with you.
As she turned onto Stoneybrook West Parkway — still miles from her home — she could see the smoke lifting toward the sky.
In the days after the fire, Fitzpatrick learned there were 32 lightning strikes within a one-mile radius of the house that afternoon. For the lightning strike at precisely 4:10 p.m., the coordinates were 0,0. Translation: A direct hit.
That also means that the fire had been burning for 20 minutes before Fitzpatrick’s mother arrived and retrieved Sasha.
DON’T TELL ME NOT TO CRY.
Fitzpatrick and Diana have a tradition. If they’ve had a good week, on Friday night, they’ll eat dinner in front of the TV for a movie night. Then, Diana is allowed to come sleep in Fitzpatrick’s bed for the night.
“She’s a bed hog, and she’s a little oven,” Fitzpatrick says, laughing. “But, it’s our thing.”
The night after the fire, the two took up shelter in Fitzpatrick’s parents’ home. Diana already had gone to bed, and Fitzpatrick was busy surveying the roomful of donations that already had poured in from the West Orange community. It was then that the weight of it all began settling in on her shoulders.
“I went to her and said, ‘Diana: Can I get in bed with you?’” Fitzpatrick remembers. “She said, ‘Really?!’”
As the two snuggled, Diana, attempting to console her mother, said, Don’t cry.
“I can’t stand to cry,” Fitzpatrick says. “But I told her: ‘Don’t tell me not to cry. You can tell me everything is going to be OK. But this is a huge, huge loss for us.’”
Throughout the weekend, all the details began to surface. What about Diana’s airway-cleaning device for her chronic bronchitis? What about all the prescription medications — some that were just filled? What about the new eyeglasses? What about the utilities — cable, phone, water, electric?
Little by little, Fitzpatrick began to tick things off the list. She went to Walmart with a friend to buy some necessities. As she approached the cashier, she noticed he was visibly nervous.
“I’ll never forget Quincy,” she says. “I asked him why he was so nervous. And he told me he was new and that it was his first time working the register.
“So I looked at him and said, ‘Well that’s OK, because my house burned down,’” Fitzpatrick says. “He didn’t know what to say, so I told him he just need to keep his good attitude and let everyone know he was new.
“I’ve gotten pretty good at telling people my house burned down at the most inappropriate times,” she says, laughing.
While talking to Bright House Networks, she explained her situation. At the end of the call, the representative reminded her to return the company’s equipment.
Um, my house burned down, she reminded him.
Embarrassed, the representative waived the $34 equipment fee.
Similar fumbling occurred when she called Duke Energy, her health insurance provider and others.
“But, that’s the way you want it, right?” she says. “I would hate it if people have more first-hand experience with dealing with something like this.”
After its evaluation of the fire, it seems promising that Fitzpatrick’s insurance company will consider it a total loss. That determination will yield two checks — one to rebuild and a second to replace the contents of the home.
Four days after the lightning strike, momentum already was carrying Fitzpatrick forward.
I CAN’T PULL OUT MY THURSDAY EMOTIONS ON TUESDAY.
After your house burns down, a company called Emergency Services and Reconstruction surveys the damage and works with you to collect important or valuable pieces such as jewelry and heirlooms. Then, that all gets placed into a warehouse, where you’ll eventually come and survey the wreckage and identify what you want to try to restore. Restoration is expensive, so you only want to keep what’s truly irreplaceable.
For Fitzpatrick, that day was scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 10. But, when she visited the ESR office Tuesday, Sept. 8, to sign permits to begin working on the house, the representatives told her that while she was there, she also could take a look at the charred and smoke-damaged remnants of her home.
That triggered her first anxiety attack.
“My plan was to go see these items on Thursday — not Tuesday,” she says. “I was not prepared for emotions on Tuesday. I planned for Thursday. Thursday! I can’t pull out my Thursday emotions on Tuesday.”
She felt like Rain Man.
She couldn’t calm down until a friend reminded her she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do. If she wanted to wait until Thursday, then do just that.
“Suddenly, a weight was lifted,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s amazing how simple that was, but sometimes, you just can’t see the answer.”
Nevertheless, two days later, Fitzpatrick was standing in the warehouse with her parents.
“Seeing the items wasn’t too bad,” she says. “I stayed focused on what they were able to recover and am so grateful for what I have. I tried not to focus on what has been lost. Many things from Diana’s room were recovered right after the fire, but my side of the house had the most damage, so these things had come from my room.”
Recovered items include jewelry that belonged to Fitzpatrick’s grandmother and aunt, some Ruby Ribbon clothes that hadn’t yet been taken out of the box and Fitzpatrick’s high-school class ring.
ESR officials also pulled from the home an antique trunk filled with Christmas decorations. Many of the linens and ornaments weren’t salvageable — or at least not worth salvaging. However, Fitzpatrick chose to keep the Christmas stockings her aunt had made, along with a tree skirt.
The trunk itself, although an antique, was not a family heirloom. Her father wanted to save it, but Fitzpatrick thought otherwise.
“If they restore everything in the house, it doesn’t make it so this did not happen,” she says. “He was getting emotional, and I told him, ‘You have to pull it together. Because if you’re falling apart, then I can’t.”
The fire did claim some irreplaceable items. Diana’s letters to Santa didn’t make it. Neither did the family cat, Buckles.
IT WOULD BE A SHAME IF WE LEARNED NOTHING FROM IT.
One of Fitzpatrick’s favorite family photos now has soot marks on it. Call them battle scars. But after the fire, friend Angel Price took the photo, reframed it and added an inspirational quotation from Mahatma Gandhi: Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.
Fitzpatrick also knows it comes from an amazingly supportive cast of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers and yes, even complete strangers, who have reached out in her greatest time of need.
Neighbor Jackie Henley Kelley — who didn’t even know Fitzpatrick well before the fire — launched a GoFundMe campaign. To date, the campaign has raised more than $20,000.
And then came the bags upon bags of clothes donations — enough to fill a small boutique. Fitzpatrick and her daughter took what they could use and now are finding places to donate the rest.
“People have been so generous and kind,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s both comfortable and uncomfortable, because people have done so much to help. I don’t want to let them down.
“There are so many people who have donated that I don’t even know,” she says. “I don’t know you, and I may never meet you, but you are unbelievable. Thank you. It gives me chills. There are worse things happening all over the world, and people are still helping (me). It’s just overwhelming — the kindness.”
As for the home, Fitzpatrick will rebuild. Crews are working on removing the unsalvageable pieces — burnt or water-damaged walls, studs, etc. Then, she’ll work with an architect to design the new home.
“I’m entertaining the thought of changing the inside,” Fitzpatrick says. “It all depends on cost — because I’m cheap before anything else.”
The process will take about a year. For now, she and Diana will live with her parents. But, when she’s ready, she’ll find a place to rent.
Just another step forward.
A few days after the fire, Diana came to her mom and asked if it happened because she was misbehaving.
“This was an act of nature,” Fitzpatrick told her. “God did not do this to punish you, but He will help you learn from it. This is something bad that happened to us, and it would be a shame if we learned nothing from it.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].