...I made front page news.
The largest circulating newspaper in the state, for that matter.
Writing this post is a little difficult. In my wish to record this experience, which I've never done before now, I don't want this to come across in the wrong way. I do not want to appear that I'm somehow wanting to attract attention or boasting. In addition, this is the first time I've posted pre-weight loss (65 lbs ago) photos of myself. It's still difficult for me to see pictures of the old me.
Every January since then, this experience always comes back to my mind. Especially when I drive by the house when I pick up the kids from school.
In case I do start to forget, and if my children want to remember what happened...
well, here's the story.
We had been in our new home only a few months. I was three months pregnant and sicker than a dog. I had told Keith just a few days before that nothing exciting ever happened in my life. That nothing I did really mattered. I was depressed. Keith was worried.
On that dreary afternoon in January, I had taken Jane to her violin lesson. We would go straight from there to pick up Gary from school. Instead of doing some other errands on the way, I decided we'd be early and just wait. For some reason, I decided to go down another street. A way I normally didn't take. The street where the house was.
I came to a little intersection and stopped. I looked at the house in front of me and could see with horror, flames coming out of the roof. It was shocking. Almost like a dream. Another driver motioned to me and I rolled down my window. He asked if I had a cell phone to call 911. I said I didn't. He said he'd go back home and make the call. I proceeded to drive.
Frantic, I knew I needed to do something. The house was in an older neighborhood. Looking at the car in the driveway, I suspected that whoever lived in that tiny house was an older person. I stopped the car and ran to a house across the street to see if we could call emergency from there. No one was home. Then, feeling like my heart would pound right out of my chest, and feeling almost like I was pushed by some unknown force, I ran to the house on fire and banged on the door. No one answered and I decided to enter the house, regardless. I quickly looked back at my crying kids in the van and I knew in my heart that everything would be okay.
An older woman was asleep on the couch. In her confusion, and in my urgency, I told her what was happening. It took a while for her to believe me, as there was not a smell of smoke in the house at that time. After repeating over and over that she needed to get out of her house, she finally started to believe me. Crying and so upset, she told me that her husband was in the back room. Knowing that the fire was directly over him, I rushed to find him asleep in his wheelchair. I could finally hear sirens now. Smoke started pouring in the house, and I proceeded to get them out the back door.
Emergency workers and neighbors met us on the road and then, remembering my anxious, waiting children, I left to reassure them and pick up my son. I couldn't stop shaking.
The next day's headlines in the local section of the paper read, "Stranger Saves Couple From Fire." The roof had collapsed right over the area the man was in. I felt sick inside. I was astonished to get a call from the same paper wanting an interview. It was surreal. We met in front of the burned out house.
The next morning I was awakened with an early morning telephone call from an excited, almost hysterical sister saying that I was not only in the paper, but actually made front page news. It was crazy. So weird to see a huge image of myself on the newsstands at the grocery store. We celebrated by going out to dinner with the family.
I had a mix of emotion. A confusion of feelings. Wanting to cry for the destruction of the Miller's home. Feeling so much relief, knowing something terrible could have happened to me and and them. Being amazed, shocked, and happy for this exciting, unbelievable attention from the newspaper, friends, and family.
A year later, I got a out-of-the-blue telephone call from someone representing a national organization called "Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge". I think he was a general in some branch of the military. He verified who I was and had me tell him the story again. He told me that I, along with three other people in our state, were chosen to be honored as heroes in their upcoming awards ceremony and banquet. I had to sit down by this time.
The day of the ceremony came. It was the first time I was able to talk to Keith and Afton Miller since the day of the fire. I was surprised to see that they had come. You can imagine the tears, hugs, and overwhelming emotion. I was also so happy that both our parents and children could join Keith and I on this special day. The governor's wife and other local dignitaries were there to honor and present special plaques to the heroes. When my name was called, I had a military escort. It was a day I'll never forget.
A few months later, Afton rang my doorbell with a cake in her hands. We cried. We held each other in our arms. She called me her angel. We would run into each other at the grocery store. I made it a point to visit them every year at Christmas time. I got the sweetest letter from their children in the mail.
In the last few years, Keith Miller, and just last year, Afton passed away. I quietly sat alone at the back of the chapel at her funeral. I feel a special bond and connection to these dear friends who came into my life. They will always hold a tender place in my heart.
Every time I drive by that house, I think of them. Sometimes, like right now, my eyes fill with tears. I re-live that memory, over and over and over.
I'm just so glad I was at the right place at the right time.