Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The God in the Breaker Box

The evening of January 9, 2016 started out as just another quiet and relaxing Saturday night for Joyce and me at our home in Lynchburg, Virginia. After a holiday season marked by a house filled with kids and grandkids, it was good to enjoy some down time. Our guests were long gone. The decorations were all boxed up for another 11 months. Most of the Christmas goodies had been consumed and the inevitable resulting diets loomed large in the near future. But not that night. The diets could wait a few more days. It was a chilly, wet, rainy night. A night for comfort and comfort food. I built a cozy fire in the fireplace and we relaxed in our preferred way: enjoying some DVDs of old BBC dramas: Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot were the night’s double feature.

Everything was, if not exactly idyllic, at least very homey and comfortable until around 9:00 PM. It was then that I went upstairs to the spare bedroom opposite our master bedroom on the far end of the house where I had my laptop plugged in. I wanted to check email. When I got up there I found that the power was out in both spare bedrooms and in the hall bathroom. That’s strange, I thought. The electrical draw on the circuit that the three rooms shared was negligible: one bedside alarm clock, my computer, and a desk lamp with a rather low wattage bulb. This was getting annoying. It was the third time in two weeks that a breaker had inexplicably tripped—three different breakers, in fact. Additionally, we had had a rash of light bulbs burn out all over the house.

I tried to reset the breaker only to be surprised when it would not reset. Stranger still. I unplugged the few things plugged in and made sure all the light switches were turned off. I checked to make sure none of the outlets or switches were hot. I didn’t smell anything burning. Well, sometimes breakers do go bad. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. I speculated that perhaps the breaker was hot. Maybe if I waited an hour it would cool off and reset. I went back to enjoying the crackling fire and our British murder mystery du jour.

One hour later I again tried to reset the breaker. No dice. At this moment I made my best decision of the still young new year and maybe one of my best decisions ever. Instead of just shrugging my shoulders and resolving to call an electrician Monday morning, I went back upstairs and checked around one more time.

When I entered that spare bedroom three things had changed.

First, I smelled something odd. It was the very faint smell of something burning. I thought at first it might just be the smell of the fireplace. With rain falling, the draft of the flue can do funny things, but you wouldn’t normally smell it upstairs even then. Besides, the odor wasn’t quite right. It was a little too acrid. It smelled, I realized upon later reflection, like an overheated electrical wire.

Second, I heard something odd. Again, my first instinct was to dismiss it. It was just the sound of the rain outside. A soft popping sound—rain hitting a window. But a quick check of the weather revealed that the rain outside was not coming down very hard and there was no wind. Walking back into the room what should have been obvious immediately suddenly hit me like a cold slap in the face. The sound wasn’t coming from the window. It was coming from the ceiling and the wall. And on the other side of that wall was the chimney flue.

Third, I felt something odd. No, odd isn’t the right word. What I felt was alarming. I put my hand on the wall where the sound was coming from. It was warm.

I walked to the head of the stairs and calmly told Joyce that I was pretty sure that the house was on fire and that I was calling 911. I made the call. I told Joyce to get in the van. I grabbed my laptop, i-Pad, cell phone, chargers, wallet, and car keys. Joyce got her i-Pad, cell phone, purse, and the cat. She waited in the van with the cat while I stood under the front porch light and waited for the Boonsboro Squad of the Bedford County Fire and Rescue to arrive.

For a few minutes there was no sound but that of the rain gently falling and the low hum of the engine of our Dodge Caravan around the corner of the house. It was almost 10:00 PM. Saturday nights are quiet in our community. Our neighborhood has no street lights and our house is a couple hundred feet off the road, so it was dark except for the lights of our neighbors in the distance. Then I heard it. A faint siren soon echoed by others. As the clamor grew louder I could begin to see in the distance red lights reflecting off of my neighbors’ houses. Then I saw the lights themselves. Fire trucks. Rescue vehicles. Red cars and pickups sporting lights to match and bearing the logo of the fire department on their doors. It seemed like every vehicle owned by the Bedford County fire department was coming to our rescue.

One of the firefighters approached me. “Is everyone out of the house? Are there any pets inside?” Negative on both counts. “Are there any gas lines in the house?” Again, no. I then recounted the events that led to the call. I explained the layout of the house. I made sure all the doors were unlocked. Then I got out of the way and let the men (and at least one woman I saw) do their jobs.

Freed of anything else to do I took the time to make a couple phone calls. I needed my church family informed. I needed them praying. I called the chair of our diaconate, who in turn contacted the rest of the deacons. And I called one other church member who I knew would willingly do anything he could to help. Plus he’s resourceful, one of those rare people who seems to know everybody. In his book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell terms such people “mavens”. And a maven can prove invaluable in a crisis. I told my friends that our house was on fire, we were safe, the fire department had responded, and to please pray for us. No, there was nothing else they could do just then. No, we couldn’t leave. Both of our vehicles by now were pinned in by fire trucks. Yes, we would keep them informed.

Now came what for me was the hardest part of the evening. I had worked the problem as best I could. That’s what I do. My instinctive response to any problem or crisis is to try to fix it. Solve the problem. Resolve the crisis. Now I had run out of useful things to do. Joyce was on her phone, talking to her twin sister—trying to drain off her own stress by sharing it. I attempted to do likewise by calling an old friend. No answer. I tried sitting in the van and found that quite impossible. I got out and stood in the cold rain in my shirtsleeves like a fool. But I guess the adrenalin kept me warm because I never felt chilled. But I was getting wet, so I finally put on my jacket and got out an umbrella. Umbrella in hand, I watched the efforts of others to save our house from ruin.

I never let myself believe that the fire would get completely out of hand. But I remember the precise point where doubt about the outcome briefly got a toehold in my mind. I looked up at the attic vent on the far side of the house from where the fire was burning and saw smoke billowing out of it. I never said a word to Joyce, but for a few minutes I wondered if my 911 call came too late. Thankfully, a short time later it became clear that the fire was under control. The house would not burn down.

It was well after midnight before I reentered our house in the company of a firefighter and the Bedford County Fire Marshal. Water was still dripping from the ceiling. Steam was still rising from charred framing members that now lay on the bedroom floor. And bits of insulation that should have been up in the attic were now all over the place. It was even on the front porch steps. Of course, the power was off. One of the very first things that the firefighters did was pull the meter to kill all power to the house. We proceeded by flashlight. The harsh contrasts created by the light beams just served to accentuate the starkness of the mess before us.

The damage to the house was most evident from the spare bedroom side. Where earlier I had placed my hand and felt disturbing warmth, there was now…nothing. That wall was gone, ripped away by fire fighters intent on getting at the fire. Above that nothingness was more nothingness. A big hole opened up into the attic. Charred framing members leaned at crazy angles. One of the roof trusses was burned through, a second was compromised. But thankfully the underside of the roof showed no sign of damage whatsoever.

It was on the master bedroom side that the damage to personal property was vividly revealed. The first thing I saw as I walked through the doorway was a big mound of clothing carelessly dumped on the bed. Flannel shirts, blue jeans, khakis, my suits, Joyce’s dresses and T-shirts… everything lumped together every which way in a random heap of fabric. Another pile was on the floor on the far side of the bed. To get at the fire the firefighters had to rip out the back wall of the master bedroom closet. The clothes blocked their access. I’m grateful that in those first precious minutes after they arrived on the scene the firefighters took a few seconds to get our clothing out of the way. We don’t yet know all the damages, but most of our garments seem to have been spared from ruin. Our shoes were not so lucky. Nearly every pair was buried in a mound of wet charcoal and slimy, broken, plaster board.

The cause of the fire was not immediately evident but from the beginning an electrical fire was suspected. It wasn’t until a few days later, when the fire marshal was joined by a building inspector and a professional fire investigator hired by the insurance company, that the final determination was made. The fire started in the chase that was built around the fireplace flue and was the direct result of at least two building code violations that dated back to the original construction of the house some 15 years ago.

To begin with, the clearance between the flue and the framing was only 3 scant inches, so there was little margin for error. And errors there were. The most egregious was the running of an electrical line inside the chase, an outrageous and dangerous code violation. In addition, insulation in the attic was placed in direct contact with the flue instead of set back away for it as required. It was also piled on top of the metal firestop plate that separated the main level from the attic.

As the fire investigator reconstructed the event, because of the insulation lying against the flue and on top of the metal firestop plate that separated the inside of the chase from the attic, the inside of the chase on the main level had no way for heat to properly dissipate. A second firestop plate separating the chase at the basement level from the chase at grade level further minimized the amount of air subject to excessive heating, concentrating a potential ignition source. The inside of the chase on the main level effectively became a superheated fire box. Of course, hot air is not an efficient way to ignite a 2x4, even one that is bone dry and extremely hot. This is where the wire comes in. Over time, repeated heating and cooling degraded the insulation on the Romex until it was completely eroded away. Now we have an explanation for the series of burned out light bulbs and blown breakers over the last couple weeks. It was that wire, briefly and repeatedly shorting out. On that fateful Saturday night I built a hot fire in the fireplace and continued to fuel it throughout the evening. The air inside the chase became superheated. Add a spark from the wire. Ignition. The investigator estimated that the fire had been quietly burning for at least 90 minutes before I called 911. He further estimated that in probably no more than another 20 minutes the fire would have been through the roof. It was a very near thing. Once a fire gets going in an attic you quickly reach the point where the house cannot be saved.

As I write this, ten days after the event, it is now evident that we were most fortunate. We lost very little personal property and nothing that cannot be replaced. Our house suffered extensive damage but it can be repaired. We will be in temporary quarters for a couple months. But inconvenience does not equal loss. I have been told that we were lucky.

I suppose “what if” questions are inevitable after such a disaster…

What if I had not made that second check on the spare bedroom and we had gone to bed not knowing that the house was on fire? Because the fire was contained in the walls and the attic, our smoke alarms never did go off. By the time they did, would we have been able to escape?

What if two weeks earlier when our children and grandchildren were all with us, we had seen a cold wave instead of enjoying record warmth? Normally during the Christmas holidays I would have had a fire in the fireplace almost continually. As it was I only built a fire one evening. It was just too warm. But if it had been cold… It doesn’t bear contemplation. For then that wire would have sparked far sooner. In that crowded house (three people slept on air mattresses that week), had the fire started in the middle of the night it’s conceivable that all of us could have died. My wife and I and every one of our descendants… gone. Or even worse, what if I had survived but lost them all? Dear God in heaven…

What if the fire started but that breaker never failed? More than one man has walked off a battlefield with the knowledge that a bullet had harmlessly grazed his helmet. The difference between life and death is sometimes a matter of inches; sometimes just millimeters. Had that misplaced wire been in ever so slightly a different spot it could have sparked without shorting out. Then the breaker would not have been tripped. And we would have gone to bed ignorant of the fact that our house was on fire. And it could very easily have been the last time we ever went to bed.

What some call luck I believe was divine providence. I have encountered God in church. I have seen Him on mountain tops. I have heard His voice in music. He has whispered words of comfort to me in the darkness of the night. But on the night of January 9, God spoke to me from a dusty breaker box in the corner of my basement. He said, “Get out.” 

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