House fire sparks loss and gratitude

By Kathryn Streeter

While away on vacation, a phone call woke Becky Ogorek, 59, and her husband Keith in the early hours of July 18, 2016. Their sleepiness vanished when their neighbour back home said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your house is engulfed in flames.” The neighbourhood was frantic as she worried that the car parked in the driveway could indicate that someone was inside.

Except for their oldest daughter, the Ogoreks were gathered together on vacation at a cottage in Michigan. The oldest, in her late 20s, had flown back to Indianapolis to attend a work conference and was staying at her parent’s home. What Becky and Keith found out in the following heart-wrenching minutes was that she’d spontaneously decided to squeeze in an overnight with cousins in Chicago. She wasn’t home. No one was in the house when it had literally burst into flames. 

Though firefighters were called immediately, nothing could be saved. The fire, as determined weeks later by forensics, started during a heavy thunderstorm according to meteorological records, causing lightening to strike the gas line. Every gas appliance in the house exploded one by one, causing the fire to spread from basement to rooftop in 45 minutes. The neighbours thought they were hearing thunder when actually, they were hearing explosions in the Ogorek house. 

The house—their home for 13 years—was destroyed and it started to collapse inward. For a time afterwards, the firefighters checked to make sure embers weren’t stirred when the house shifted. The property was ominously corded off with yellow police tape to keep anyone from getting too close. 

Becky says that they came out of this as a family with two mantras. One, that though this was extremely disruptive—it was not devastating, because their hope and self-worth doesn’t rest in what they own. It’s in who they are and love, she explains. The second mantra born from the tragedy was, “We hold things loosely, but we hold people tightly.” 

At the time, however, she felt tremendous loss and concedes, “It hurt when all we had was taken away. There’s a grieving period that’s very human.” Specifically Becky mourned the loss of furniture her father had made for her, a locket passed down from her great-grandmother and emerald earrings Keith had given her for their anniversary. It hurt, too, to lose her entire personal library, with handwritten notes in the margins. “My books are some of my best friends,” Becky explains. Letters to her children, written each year on the occasion of their birthday and put away to be given all at once—were gone forever. 

Becky’s loss was harder, too, in that she’d lost her beloved brother the previous month. The fire further took him away, she explains, making ash of the large collection of ‘60s music he’d selected for her. Gone, too, were the notes she had taken when she, her mom and all the siblings would jump on a conference call and discuss passages of Scripture. “My brother had such unique insights and I learned so much from him.” With these gone, she says it felt like her brother had been erased from her life. 

In practical terms, Becky recommends your insurance covers “full-replacement value” as theirs did. Otherwise, coverage will factor for depreciation, a 50 per cent decrease. Secondly, she advises taking photos around the house of all you own, something they had not done. Becky and Keith were required to complete a full list from recall of everything they owned for the insurance company. In some cases they were lucky, recovering receipts and photos stored on the cloud. “The detail was overwhelming,” Becky says. 

Walking through this as a family, Becky and Keith’s attitude helped to prevent the tragedy from negatively affecting their daughters. Instead, they grew closer as a family, because they felt the grief and then the gratitude together for simply being alive. Becky says, “Once I realized our daughter was safe that morning, I could sincerely say with my whole heart, ‘Thank you, God! Take it all,’ because what meant the most to me, our family, was safe.” 

Becky muses that some think that if an object is gone, so is the memory. But the object doesn’t hold the memory; the memory can’t be contained by an object. It’s bigger. “I’m here to tell you, that the memories stay with you. They belong to you,” she says emphatically. 

However, one cherished memory-rich object was miraculously spared. At her brother’s memorial service the month prior to the fire, pots of jasmine, his favourite flower, filled the room. Becky had taken one home and planted it, a poignant reminder of him. After the fire, she was able to rescue the jasmine and replant it in her new backyard. Not only did it survive, it bloomed gloriously that summer. She felt she’d been mercifully given a way to preserve her brother’s memory. 

Like a bridge between the old—before the fire, and the new—after the fire, the resilient jasmine symbolized the transition. Just as Becky focused on coaxing the fledgling jasmine to start over and grow strong, she felt similar personal ambitions for herself. “Out of the ashes is beauty and love and life, if you let it grow,” she says.  

Find Kathryn Streeter’s writing at www.kathrynstreeter.com.