Friday February 26, 2010: My family and I were on a vacation to a rental cabin in Gatlinburg for a long weekend. That evening we had a fire going in the fire place. My wife, Sarah, was complaining about the smell of the smoke and went to bed about an hour before I did. I was burning mostly cedar, which I loved the smell of. I was relaxing on the couch with a glass of wine and my best friend, Chewbacha. Chewbacha, “Chewie” for short, is our 8lb Pekingese/Poodle mix. We went to bed around 11pm. At 2:30am we were awakened by the sound of the smoke detectors. My first thought was that smoke was coming from the dying embers in the fire place as the coals were dying. I proceeded to investigate to determine how I might clear the house of smoke, silence the smoke alarms, and go back to sleep. While I was in disbelief as to what was going on, Sarah acted heroically. She grabbed for Chewie who was in our bed. He was scared and ran away from her. She then grabbed our 6-month old daughter, Caroline, went downstairs, and out the front door. She stood there, nearly naked, in the snow, waiting for me to tell her what to do.
I gave her the truck keys and told her to drive up to the next cabin to use their phone to call the fire department. I had seen people outside the cabin earlier that day, but didn’t think about whether they might have a working telephone. Sarah told me that Chewie had run away when she tried to grab him. I went back inside to get Chewie. The white smoke was pouring out of the air vents. It turns out that the furnace in the crawl-space of the cabin was the source of the fire. In addition to still being half asleep, the smoke was thick making it difficult to see. In my panic, I never thought to grab my glasses so that I could see better. As I was crawling around the floor upstairs, I heard the horn honking franticly outside. I ran out and found that Sarah couldn’t release the parking brake on the truck. After pulling the lever for her, I ran back inside.
The white smoke was getting thicker. I forced open the window of the master bathroom to get a breath of air. I kicked open the master bedroom door, again to catch a breath. I then heard tires squealing outside. Sarah had backed into some ice and gotten stuck. I ran out, put her and Caroline in the back seat and drove up to the next cabin. There was no one home. I continued up to the cabin after that. After frantically knocking on the door and waking the people who were renting the cabin themselves, I explained that our cabin was on fire and asked to use their phone. I called 911. The operator asked for my address. I didn’t know what it was. They got the address from the caller ID from the phone that I was using. I explained that my cabin was nearly across the street. They asked me to clarify the address. I told them that they would see smoke coming out of the house when they got there.
Chewie and I had a special relationship. We ran together, hiked together, and went to work together most of the time. When I came home, I would play with him in the back yard for 30 minutes before going inside to see my baby girl. I ran back down to our cabin, still barefoot in the snow to get Chewie. When I went inside, the smoke had turned black and very thick. At the very peak of the vaulted ceiling, in the center of the cabin, just outside the master bedroom, I could see flame. This time I heard Chewie frantically barking upstairs. I rejoiced that I would be able to find him as long as he was barking. I ran to the top of the stairs. At the top, everything went black; I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I wouldn’t know it if I was running directly into a full blaze. I knew that I could get to Chewie, but I didn’t know if I could get back out. It flashed through my mind that I had good life insurance if the worst were to happen. I would have risked my life to try to save him at that point, but I couldn’t risk Caroline growing up without a Dad. I ran back downstairs where the smoke wasn’t as bad yet. I called, and called, and called, but he didn’t come. I ran outside and cried in the street. I cried for the next 48 hours. Chewie never made it out. This was the worst and scariest experience of my life. While we are broken-hearted over the loss of our Chewie, we are thankful that the 3 of us that made it out are safe.
Trying to turn a bad situation into a positive, we note the following:
- Smoke detectors save lives – they saved ours – and we are thankful!
- Fire drills can save lives – it is important to practice with children what to do.
- Your furnace should be serviced annually – home maintenance is important.
- While smoke detectors save lives, a MONITORED smoke detector that calls the fire department automatically can save much more. We estimate that it took us 15 minutes to get to a telephone to call the fire department. If the smoke detectors in our house had been monitored, the fire fighters would have arrived 15 minutes earlier. They would have arrived before the time when I heard Chewie barking. They would have saved him. They also would have saved Sarah’s wedding ring and some other items that were lost. They would have been able to save the structure of the house. A fire doubles in size every 30 seconds. Seconds count!
- As a company, we have always offered fire protection as an option to our burglary alarm systems. Because of this, our company now insists on including fire protection with all of our monitored home systems.
Final thought: As it turned out, when Chewie ran away from Sarah, he ran to the other side of the bed. In my state of panic, I pictured him “running away” across the floor. He was probably in our bed the whole time. Think about this: If I couldn’t save our dog who sleeps in the bed with me, how likely are you to be able to save your children if a fire breaks out? At tradeshows, I always ask children what to do if their house is on fire. I get answers from “stop-drop-and roll” to hide under the bed. When I was a child, we would sleep in strange places, including closets sometimes. We called it camping. If you are trying to save your child in a fire, you are not calling the fire department. Our systems can make that life-saving call for you, automatically.