Have you ever visited somewhere that made you feel something you couldn’t quite explain? An overwhelming sense of gratitude? A sense of loss? While in Roscommon, Michigan, I visited the Michigan State Firemen’s Memorial, which was just around the corner from where we were staying. It’s tucked off the road, meticulously landscaped, quiet, and beautiful. Even though it was not in my home state, the memorial held a personal gratitude in me for firefighters everywhere and how they affected my family.
What stood out initially was the imposing and touching sculpture of a fireman holding a child and a lantern depicting a successful escape from a burning structure.
It was early morning and no matter how hard I tried to get a good likeness of the fireman, it always came out in silhouette. It was as if he didn’t want attention drawn to himself, but to the structures behind him–walls where literally thousands of names of firefighters who sacrificed their lives were immortalized on both sides of the glossy black marble.
It was somber to see name after name of men and women who lost their lives fighting fires, all selfless protectors who put themselves in danger to save others. Their loss was more poignant when seeing the small mementos left by surviving family members in honor of their fallen heroes.
Behind the massive sculptor was a lovely garden of reflection with a path leading to a serene picnic area. A wrought-iron arch at the entrance began the walkway meandering through displays of various firefighting equipment.
These memorial gardens touched me deeply. I have not lost a firefighter in my life. I did, however, lose beloved siblings in a house fire despite the valiant efforts of deeply dedicated firefighters. Those heroes tried desperately to save all seven children in the burning home before they succumbed to the smoke and flames, but were only able to rescue my brother, Russ, and sister, Ruth. The first account events of that morning are best told by my brother, poet Russell E. Smith, who has recorded his vivid memories of that morning in this moving and emotional tribute:
Every day of every year
It is in my mind’s eye.
I cannot get rid of it,
No matter how I try.
A quarter of a century has passed,
Since that dreadful day.
Sometimes it seems a lifetime ago,
I was awakened that morning by my little brother David,
On that horrible January Day,
“Get up Russell, the house is on fire”
And we ran to our sisters’ room right away.
The smoke was billowing up the stairs,
The heat was so intense.
The windows seemed a million miles away,
The light in the room was dense.
I remember thinking to myself,
We would all get out alive,
‘Cause we saw a fire on The Waltons last week,
And everyone survived.
As the smoke began to choke me up,
I ran for a bed-sheet to cover my mouth and nose.
My sisters were trying in vain,
To open a window that had been painted closed.
When I made it to the window,
I saw my mother in the street below,
Trying to flag down cars,
As they passed by through the snow.
Searching for an alternate route of escape,
I ran out in the hallway in despair.
It was clear we had two choices,
Through a window, or down the stairs.
I began to descend the stairway,
And had no choice but to retreat,
For flames were shooting through the doorway below,
And I was driven back up by the heat.
About this time I heard the sirens,
And thought ‘everything’s ok’,
There is a light at the end of this tunnel,
Because help is on the way.
I started back toward the girls’ bedroom window,
Intent on kicking out the glass,
When one of my sisters grabbed a board from the closet,
And the pane exploded with a crash.
I made a beeline for the window,
I had to breathe some fresh air,
By the time I made it across the room,
My sister, Ruth had frozen there.
A man below was telling her to jump,
That he would catch her when she fell.
But she just clung to the window,
I tried to convince her as well.
My mother shouted up, “Where’s David?”
I turned around to the pitch-black room.
“David” I said, “Where are you?”
The only answer was silence and gloom.
It was then that it hit me like a ton of bricks,
Everything was not ok.
I turned back toward the window,
And the bright light of the day.
I was surprised by a man in the window.
He grabbed Ruth and she fell to the ground below.
The next thing I knew I was standing,
Barefoot in the pure white snow.
I leaned on the back of my mother’s car,
And laid my head down on my arm.
I heard someone say, “let’s get these kids,
Next door to where it is warm.”
So they carried us to the neighbor’s house,
Where I sat and asked God “WHY?”
“Please don’t just sit back,
And let my brother and sisters die!”
It wasn’t long until they carried us again,
This time to an ambulance outside.
I looked up at the face of my mother,
Who was suddenly by my side.
Her face was a picture of terror,
And I lost my faith in God.
She looked at me and said, “You know, don’t you?”
All I could do was nod.
As the ambulance pulled away from the curb,
And the sirens began to blow,
I looked out at the burning house,
An inferno in the snow.
I felt two emotions at the same time,
One was relief that I was still alive,
The other was hope that there was still time,
To save the other five.
This hope was against hope I was sure,
But I hoped it just the same.
God was silent as He could be,
As I looked back at the flames.
And now I have only memories,
Of the way things used to be,
Before that day when a family of eight,
Became a family of three.
A quarter of a century has passed,
Since that dreadful day.
Sometimes it seems a lifetime ago,
© 2002 Russell E. Smith Candid Heart Poetry, All Rights Reserved.
Russ and Ruth lived through the horrific nightmare and it altered their lives forever, giving them a bond of strength, sadness, empathy, and generosity among other admirable attributes born of deep pain and grief. We grew up in separate households with different moms, and I remember receiving the news of the deaths of our half-siblings that horrible day. There was a sense of devastating loss with a simultaneous overwhelming joy that Ruth and Russ survived. The shock, loss, and lifetime of ‘what-ifs’ shaped us all in different ways, but were most profound for Ruth and Russ.
Grateful thoughts remain. Thank you to the firemen who openly mourned the loss of five young children and who also heroically saved Ruth and Russ. Not one soul walked away from the horrendous scene unscathed–the surviving victims, family and friends who loved them, and especially the brave firefighters on the scene.
A FIREMAN’S PRAYER
When I am called to duty, God
Wherever flames may rage
Help me embrace a little child
Before it is too late
Or save an older person from
The horror of that fate
Enable me to be alert
And hear the weakest shout
And quickly and efficiently
To put the fire out
I want to fill my calling and
To give the best in me
To guard my every neighbor and
Protect his property
And if according to your will
I have to give my life
Please bless with your protecting hand
My children and my wife.
Thank you to firemen everywhere, but especially the ones who carried my brother and sister to safety.
Russ has published three books of poetry. They can be found by clicking below:
Heart Strings: Life, Love, and Loss by Russell E. Smith
Candid Reflections: The Pen Next Drawer by Russell E. Smith
Symphonies of Words by Russell E. Smith
Random Bits of Trial and Error (RandomBitsRV) is an Amazon Affiliate.
OMG! Dawn, that was horrific. What a terrible thing to have to live with. Those things happen to other people. Your photos of the memorial site are excellent, especially the one with the snapdragons in front. I have 2 retired firemen in my family; one was in the fund raiser calendar. I have always believed it was not possible to pay them enough for the job they do, firemen and policemen both. Amazing blog.
Thank your firefighters for us, please. It’s a job (along with policemen) that definitely do not get paid enough for what they do.
The Little Big Horn Battlefield gave us an unexplainable feeling.
I’m sure that it did and I’m looking forward to visiting Little Big Horn. I think our family’s loss made the Firemen’s Memorial deeply personal for me. Sometimes places make us ‘feel’ things rather than simply visiting and learning.
I can feel the deep emotion just looking at the pictures! I can’t even imagine being there! I have nothing but the deepest love and respect for firefighters everywhere! Being in that house fire was the scariest moment in my life and to think that firefighters put themselves through such experiences every day to save lives is just unimaginable! Like my wife, this blog post brought tears to my eyes and a heaviness to my heart, not just my poem, but your compassionate words as well! It has been 40 years since the house fire that took our siblings, but the pain and grief are still fresh! I still have mental and emotional scars. I do not like campfires, bonfires and such. I am not particularly fond of the barbecue grill, though I do like eating the food prepared on them.
Writing that poem was, by far, the hardest write of my life! I had tears in my eyes as I was writing it and I tear up every time I read it as well. My third book, ‘Heart Strings; Life, Love, and Loss’ was a great release for me as it is mostly about the fire and our siblings. If anyone is considering buying one of my books, i highly recommend this one as it contains the most of my heart,
I am so honored, Dawn, that you included my poem in this post! Thank you so much! I knew you would rock this one! You are such an amazing writer and l love you sister, more than I can even express!
I love you, too, Russ. I can tell the story from my end (and I don’t tell it often because it’s painful), but to have your first-hand account is chilling and emotional. What you lived through is horrendous and you’ve turned it into a lesson on life–we go on, but we are forever changed by the experience. I’m glad I could share your poem and give it honor and I thank you letting me. It’s heartbreaking–and healing. Love you more forever!
Dawn, Russ and Ruth if you are reading this.
I’m glad I read the post word for word to include the poems. I know one faces risk when responded to someone’s lose in two many words, but I’m going to do it anyway.
I know children are special to God and hope knowing and believing that would add some degree of comfort, all be it not enough. Your story is now part of my own memories after reading it. I’m so sorry for your family having gone through that day, and every day after as you think back.
Loss of family are terrible moments for so many years. I wish happiness lasted as long for it seems like the good times are but a moment in time. Especially when compared to the terrible things that stay in front of most other memories – it would seem.
Dawn, thank you for sharing this part of your family with us. Reading this adjusts my own priorities and sense of what is important. Russ, your writing is deep and wonderful. It must have been a test of love to endure the pain to get it onto paper.
There are no words I can think of to even start to say how sorry I am for your family. There is no way I can imagine it other than the words you wrote. The images are terrifying and very sad.
I have zero doubt the firefighters that responded to your home think about your family every day. My hat’s off to them.
Mark from Missouri
Thank you for your comments, Mark. They are appreciated and taken to heart. We lost another sibling a year and a half later in a car accident. The one scripture that has always kept me strong (personally) is “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” I know one day we will all be reunited.
Again, thank you for your comments–I felt the heart in them and appreciate them so much. Dawn
Mark, I really appreciate your comments more than I can express. Writing that poem was indeed a struggle! It took me several years to write. I still write about that experience form time to time and sometimes I choose to share, sometimes I don’t. Writing has been an amazing outlet for me over the years and am I am often inspired by others. I think there is a poem in there somewhere in your comment about happy times not lasting in our memory as long as terrible times. i feel a new write coming on…
I agree with your comment about the firefighters. I remember a picture in the paper the day after the fire of a fireman (who happened to be my third cousin) on the roof of the house and the look of horror on his face said it all! It is not an easy job at all and I have the deepest respect for those with a strong enough will to do it.
Thanks again =, from the bottom of my heart!
Oh my darling Dawn, what a difficult post this must have been to write – yet so important to bring us all to difficult thoughts that expand our perspectives of life itself. The photos and your descriptions were inspirational, and the first poem gave me chills that remain as I type these words.
This Thanksgiving Thursday I will add the firemen who risk their lives every time they answer the call to rush to a fire to my gratitude list – and will pay a visit to our local fire station to shake the hands of each of the fire fighters who respond to the call here in Clifton.
To fire fighters everywhere: THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!
(Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
“It takes a village to transform a world!
Thank you, Madelyn. Russ’s poem is very emotional and moving and extremely difficult for him to write, I’m sure. Thank you for being inspired to thank your local firemen.
Thank YOU for inspiring me.
What a heartfelt post and poignant tribute to 5 young souls. I can only imagine that poor mother’s anguish. .
I can’t speak for Russ, but I think his mom’s heart was shattered into a billion pieces. No mother should ever, ever have to endure that loss.
I remember when my son and his wife lost everything they owned except the clothes on their backs when their dishwasher caught fire when they were at work and the resulting blaze gutted the house. Although it was terrible for them at the time, it’s nothing to having lost 5 children.
I cannot imagine experiencing this loss of loved ones in a fire. The vivid visuals, the smells, the sounds of sirens, the choking smoke. That poem wrenches my heart as do your words, Dawn. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal and difficult story. Words bring healing.
Oh Dawn. I know you’ve overcome some huge obstacles in your life, but I didn’t know there was also so much sorrow and grief. No wonder you are such a strong individual. **HUGS**
**HUGS** back atcha. Everyone has a story with personal struggles and experiences that make them the people they are–that’s why I love hearing, reading, and learning from them. Thanks, Andrea.
When I sit at my table on Thanksgiving across from my children and grandchildren, I will think of your story and your family’s story and say a special prayer of blessing for firefighters everywhere.
Thank you, Bernadette. That means the world to my family and me.
Such a terrible, terrible loss and yet a great reminder of the heroism of so many firefighters who put their lives at risk on a daily basis. Thank you for sharing such a poignant post which is incredibly thought provoking in the lead up to Thanksgiving.
Thank you so much for reading and appreciating the emotional post. It means so much to my family and me.