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Through the fire
How one Glen Rock family navigated its way through a hectic two years away from home after escaping a rampaging house fire.
April 21, 2017
Footsteps coasting against a freshly sanded wood floor, 14-year-old Isis Kirkland smelled the new timber of her rebuilt home with an odd familiarity. She hadn’t walked through this door since March 21, 2015, almost two years back.
It would take some time to decide whether or not this home was better than the last or would even compare at all. Isis recalled the scent of charred wood and torched belongings, the towers of ruthless titian flames, and the hole in her bedroom floor.
Nonetheless, this house, its skeleton, was given a second chance – one that Isis had feared would never be in the heat of the moment.
In the fresh hours of the morning on March 21, 2015, Isis Kirkland returned home from watching a scary movie at her godmother’s house. Still nervous from the film’s scares, she asked her grandmother to check-in on her throughout the night and make sure she was safe. Before bed, she swapped her day clothes for a pair of black Old Navy shorts and a pink hoodie. Drained of the day’s energy, she crawled into bed for sleep, so cautious of the movie’s murderer that she left her lamp on.
In retrospect, this wasn’t the brightest decision.
The smoke alarms weren’t what awakened the Greenes. It was instead Isis’s incidental insomnia that interrupted her sleep and alerted her of the situation. Her yellow and pink butterfly lamp was smoking, causing her tulle curtains to catch flame, and quick. The disorienting, acrid stench of the smoke was what reached Isis first, tunneling deep into her throat and nostrils and forcing her eyes to tear up. Without thought, she sprinted out into the hallway, taking nothing with her.
The family dog Mocha, a miniature poodle, had been the first to depart, leaving through the unlocked porch door when she caught the slightest initial whiff of vapor.
As Isis exited the door, she came across her grandmother, Sarah Greene, who was coming in to Isis’s room for the check-up she promised. The pair promptly split, with Sarah attempting to smother the fire with a pillow while Isis rushed upstairs to her mother’s bedroom. They battled in vain and soon ran out the door into the chilly March night.
The Greenes withdrew were welcomed into that of their neighbor, Isaiah Townes, where they would then spend the night in the flickering shadows of burning memories.
There the trio sat from the safety of a neighboring house, watching their home of twenty-some, almost thirty, years be picked away by a blue-tinged inferno. There was nothing to do but watch while waiting for the fire department to assemble and arrive.
At times it became too painful to observe, causing the family members to close their eyes or face the other way. What else can one do when they haven’t even been able to salvage anything from their home? Even so, the Greenes remained undeterred and steady.
Isis began to feel that this situation was her misdeed. It would make sense, right? Her lamp, her room, her fault. Except for the fact that it wasn’t, and her mother and grandmother would never let her forget that.
Photo Credit: Joe (JP) Fortunato III of Smokin’ Fireground Photography
After the fire department assembled and the little white house was quenched by hoses, the levels were nothing but a singed skeleton, and the basement a drowning wasteland, damp with water. Despite being generally extinguished, the areas where the fire had begun were still volatile, and required back-and-forth maintenance, most notably in Isis’s bedroom. Sparks would start again and again where the lamp was until they were finally stifled. Meanwhile, the Greenes could only sit idly by, watching and waiting. After what seemed like forever, the firefighting was done and the department began packing up the truck. Before leaving, chief Tom Jennings handed over a voucher to the family, who was still in disbelief. The little slip that he gave certified the Greene’s extended stay at the Residence Inn Marriott Hotel in Saddle River.
Miraculously, the group was able to catch some rest, and prepare themselves for the sunlight of another day.
March 21 was Isis’s mother, Charis’s, birthday, and after being woken up by her fiery first gift, she couldn’t wait to see what was next. Still in shock, the family packed themselves up and out of their generous neighbor’s house, setting out for their next adventure: a hotel. Isis went into the situation hoping for the dreamy living space she had seen in TV shows, and in some way, dwelling in a hotel was just as picture-perfect as it seemed on television, but in other ways, it was surely the opposite.
“There’s people living around you so you can’t really do what you want,” Isis said. “You can’t be as loud as you want to because you have to deal with people everywhere you go. More importantly, there’s the fact that it’s just not home.”
Before heading off to work, Charis Greene embarked daily on the fifteen minute commute from the hotel to Glen Rock Middle School to drop off her daughter, Isis. Charis’s white Dodge Challenger travelled the seven miles per way between Glen Rock, for her daughter’s education, and Saddle River- where the family’s new home for what would become the next three to four months of their lives was located.
Undeterred by the hotel’s burdens such as an absence of privacy and the limit on volume, the family was accommodated by a convenient cleaning service and complimentary meals for breakfast and dinner.
The Greene family dog, Mocha, who had been waiting on the sidewalk for the trio while they escaped their burning house, seemed to adjust well to the new residence in the long run. Mocha was able to be walked whenever she pleased and enjoyed interacting with the other animals present at the hotel. Nonetheless, the poodle disdained elevator rides in particular, and initially struggled adapting to the new and peculiar environment.
With approximately three to four months out of their lives spent living in a hotel, the Greene family switched gears and were able to proceed with their residential adventures. The group rented a townhouse in Hawthorne. The quick departure from the Residence Inn may have cut their commute to Isis’s school in half, but it would not be their final goodbye.
Photo Credit: Jenny DeStefano
Throughout the long journey, the Glen Rock community made sure not to forget about the tragedy in their beloved neighbors’ lives. Community members spanning across the almost three miles of town contributed to fundraisers to assist in the wellness of the Greenes. A “GoFundMe” page was started by fire chief Jennings’ son, Nick, and Isis’s classmates at Glen Rock Middle School even held a bake sale.
“I asked one of my teachers and the principal if I could organize a bake sale to raise money for the fire,” bake sale founder Anna Rasmussen said. “I went around the school asking several girls if they would help out, and about seven of the ones that I asked baked goods. I think that although we didn’t raise the greatest amount of money, we truly made the Greene’s feel better and showed them that we cared.”
Additionally, Glen Rock civilians donated clothes, shoes, and other necessary supplies to the three. The family’s house of worship, Mt. Bethel Church, and their public adjuster made donations as well.
“The change has been positive because I have learned that even though you do not personally know everyone in your community, that does not mean that they are not concerned about you and your family,” Sarah said. “Everywhere I go in town, someone will ask about our house and how we are doing. Thank you to everyone who reached out to the Greene family and Mocha, and God bless everyone.”
Eager to make the switch into a private home and out of the convenient- yet public- hotel, the group packed up their belongings and embarked on the journey of moving into a townhouse.
Each family member, including Mocha, seemed to adjust well to the more enclosed lifestyle. The group decided to ditch Mocha’s dog crate since they knew she could be trusted without one, as made apparent by their prior living situation.
The trio also found satisfaction in the fact that the townhouse was closer to Glen Rock than the extended-stay residence.
Accordingly, the Greene’s commute to Isis’s school decreased, and the family members found themselves in downtown Glen Rock more often than they had been over the preceding three months. Meanwhile, Glen Rock civilians continued to donate to the three of them, making evident to the family just how caring their neighbors – some of them strangers – were.
“I would say that you definitely learn who your friends are. I never realized how much support would’ve come from the community, like just how generous everybody is,” Charis said. “There were people who were strangers to us- people that we didn’t even know. The outpour of support was just amazing, and I realized what a great town Glen Rock is.”
Photo Credit: Isis Kirkland
Despite the trio’s appreciation of their recently regained privacy, their housing journey wouldn’t end up concluding there. Over the course of roughly four months, the Hawthorne townhouse’s lease expired, leaving the family of three returning to their extended-stay hotel residence.
Along with Isis, Charis, and Sarah’s reentry into the Residence Inn Marriott came the sun’s scorching summer rays. At this point, the feverous breath of summer had arrived just in time, as now the family had access to a swimming pool.
Throughout the torrid summer months, when Isis and her friends had just been relinquished from their last leg of middle school, it was time to anticipate a hopefully soon move-in date for their new house, which was in the process of being rebuilt.
While Charis and Sarah discussed blueprints with their contractors and public adjuster, Warren Toles, Isis enjoyed the carefree school vacation of every incoming freshman. She attended the Meadowlands Fair in early July, birthday parties in early August, and multiple visits with friends across the street to SkyZone Allendale (a trampoline jumping arena) all throughout.
One of Isis’s most memorable experiences comes from a SkyZone trip with friends a few days after school let out for summer vacation. The girls participated in an hour jump session, with a break for Icees halfway through, of course. They then walked back to the Greene’s hotel room, where they were greeted with pizza that Charis had ordered, and complimentary s’more making by the pool.
Isis may have taken away cheerful memories from summer ‘16, but that didn’t mean that the Greene’s situation was any different. Though Sarah and Charis remained optimistic about their chances of moving into their rebuilt home as the June, July, and August pages were soon ripped from their calendar, they noted that the construction was moving rather slowly, leaving room for the personal trait of patience to be acquired by all.
At last, the Greene’s entered upon the final days of August, which meant that September, and ultimately the beginning of Isis’s entrance into high school, was nearing. Little by little, the family received updates of the construction status, boosting their morales by each syllable spoken.
While Glen Rock High School began administering class schedules for the 2016-2017 school year, the Greene’s commenced their gradual move-in and final farewell from the Residence Inn- induced by the packing of their few belongings left from the fire and those acquired post. Due to the ruddy flames that plagued and consumed their scorched home for hours on end, toxic chemicals remained inside after it was extinguished, which discouraged souvenirs.
Each family member found themselves preoccupied by a hankering for their newly prevalent dream home that seemed unable to be appeased or negotiated with. This begun with the oversight of the unspoiled furniture that their insurance company provided. Shortly after this, it came time to choose new paint colors for the walls, look through dozens of samples, and appoint one paint chip supreme. For Isis, fully fresh furniture was supplied to her bedroom, along with a number of more surface changes. The cosmetic alteration that appealed to Isis the most came in the form of purple paint, spread evenly and deeply across her four bedroom walls, framed by alabaster crown molding.
Home at last
After almost two years of anticipation and patience, the Greene family returned to their beloved home. The reconstruction of the little white house, whose bones had withstood the barbaric flames, was altered by paint jobs and the addition of a wooden deck.
Isis stared at the vacant shell that was once recognizable as her bedroom. The remnants of architecture were a canvas, open to Isis’s new and modern interpretation.
Considering that the young teenager’s lamp was the culprit of the fire, Isis’s bedroom was impacted the worst of them all, leaving her with nothing but the pajamas she wore while escaping. The smoke and flames had chased her out so quickly that she departed the original front door for the final time with not even her cell phone or birthday money in tow.
Despite past desires for a dream home, the family seemed to experience an everlasting sensation of newfound appreciation and longing for the original.
“Even though it’s a new house, we still miss our old house. It’s weird because you always think ‘Oh, it would be great to have a new house,’ but it’s odd because we don’t seem to appreciate our new house as much as we did our old,” Charis said. “It’s one of those things where you always think the grass is greener on the other side until yours is gone and you have something new, and it’s like ‘Well, this house is nice but we liked the other one better.’”
There was no mistaking that this was not an ideal situation for the family. As anyone would, the three treasured the memories that the initial house conjured for them. Regardless, the trio lovingly awaited the good times that the reconstructed home was sure to bear forthcoming.
Meanwhile, it didn’t hurt to relish in the fresh splendors that came with the house’s return. For one, the group retained their privacy. Another came in the addition of a deck for the backyard, where the group foresaw a profusion of summer memories for years to come. A third came in the general feeling of being back at home, back where they belonged. Most of all, the group was just keen on the fact that the white house on Dean Street was home to them again.
Soon enough, it was time for yet another page in the calendar to be tossed aside. September had arrived and was ripe in its second or third week when the three underwent a wild schedule change. It was time again for Isis to return to school, where she would become a freshman at Glen Rock High School. The remainder of the family devoted their hours outside of work to continuing on with the move-in process, which was progressing at its own steady pace.
A lesson learned
With the summer months under their belts, the family’s hotel and townhouse stays were the farthest things from their minds, next to, of course, the fire itself. Though the incident had significantly impacted the trio’s lives, the Greene’s remained emotionally stalwart.
It would be an understatement to say that the fire was very draining for the family. However, all three held their heads high and kept moving on. For them, lingering on the tragic idea that they lost everything they owned was absolutely not an option. Feeling sorry for themselves and not making the most of their situation would allow their emotions to be infiltrated by despair, and that was not in the least what they had planned.
“It was just one of those things where you have to deal with things when they happen. You can’t fold, you can’t give up, you have to keep moving, and I just think that we didn’t really think about it a lot, which might sound kind of weird,” Charis said. “I think the way that Isis and I cope with things is to put them out of our minds, so we weren’t really focused on it.”
After Isis’s new school year had begun and summer was long gone, the Greene’s occupied themselves with the lives they led prior to their experiences throughout their displacement – this time, with a lesson learned.
This was the philosophy of family: the aspect of how each family member just expected their family, home, and belongings to last until they chose to surrender them voluntarily. The fire opened up the wholly fresh realization that that philosophy is false, and gave an additional familial appreciation to each Charis, Sarah, and Isis.
Somehow, the flames introduced the unimportance of belongings.
Each family member’s eyes were opened to not “what,” but “who” they truly care about. This is because when the orange light and enveloping vapor were cast down upon them, their treasured belongings suddenly didn’t matter any more.
“I was always worried about my makeup, and my Uggs, and my phone, because it’s stuff that we take a lot of value and a lot of pride in,” Isis said. “It showed me that that doesn’t matter as much as I thought it did, because in the heat of the moment when it was all burning, that was the last thing I thought about.”
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