My House Burned Down, and Here’s What It Taught Me: One Mother’s Heart-Pounding True Story

"My family and I survived the blaze, but we thought we’d lost everything else. We were wrong."

november 2015 house on fireAnna and Elena Balbusso for Reader's Digest

On November 18, 1994, I wake from a vivid dream. I sit up in bed, heart pounding, face wet with tears. My husband, Troy, asks, “What’s wrong?”

“I was falling backward … in this huge avalanche,” I sob, “and everything I owned, everything I’d ever accomplished in my life, was tumbling over me, pounding and crushing me until there was nothing but dust.”

“It was just a dream, honey.” He wraps his arms around me.

Cissy, nine, and Taylor, four, are downstairs eating Cheerios. Cartoons hum cheerily in the background. The dogs are under the table, waiting to catch any stray crumbs. I try to shake the residual feelings from the dream. “Everything’s fine; everything’s fine,” I say to myself, all day long.

After school, I drop Cissy at her dad’s for an overnight visit. As I drive home, my chest muscles seize. I wonder what is wrong with me. Maybe I need medication or to go back to therapy. Or maybe I’ll never get used to sharing my daughter with my ex-husband.

By the time I walk into our house, I can barely breathe. I think, If I nap, I’ll feel better. I bring my dogs, Whitney and Lady; my cats, Angel and Munchkin; and my bunny, Bunny, into my bedroom. It is an odd thing I have never done before. I fall into a deep sleep, but when I wake, I am still edgy.

Troy, Taylor, and I have dinner. After Taylor’s bath, I zip him into his pajamas. We have a Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook sword fight with toothbrushes, and then I read his favorite book, The Grouchy Ladybug, and sing to him until he falls asleep. Outside, a full moon hangs in the sky. It shines like an icy sun, giving me an ominous feeling.

In the next room, Troy and our friend Donna tune their guitars; we are preparing for a gig. We sing in three-part harmony, with Donna and Troy playing. My throat is tight, my breathing shallow. I’m not hitting my notes. Donna asks, “What’s up, girl? You’re not yourself.”

I tell her about the dream. Donna touches my arm. “Hols, we don’t need to do this now. We can reschedule.”

Troy holds me. “Everything’s OK, honey. You’re safe.” He knows these are the best words to say to me. Safe—my entire life, that’s all I’d ever wanted to feel. We walk Donna downstairs. The living room is dark, so I flip the light switch. Nothing happens. “Must’ve blown a fuse,” Troy says, and goes to find a flashlight.

By the glow of the fire in the fireplace, I see smoke backing out of the chimney, filling the room with an eerie haze. I crack a window.

“We heard crows making a racket in the chimney …,” I say.

“They probably built a nest up there—that’s why the smoke is trapped.” Donna stands by the front door. “You guys want me to stay?”

I wave my hand. “No. Everything’s fine.” She hugs me and leaves.

In the hall, Troy shines a light on the breaker box. As he flips a switch, a buzz sends us hurtling backward. “It’s gotta be a fuse … I can fix it.”

“Please!” I say. “I have a bad feeling. Let’s get an electrician here in the morning.”

I wash my face, brush my teeth, and slip on my nightgown. Ordinary things on an ordinary night, but I am still anxious, eyeing the full moon. I sit on our bed, while Troy falls asleep. Angel and Munchkin curl on either side of me, purring. Agitated, I walk the house, checking for … for what? I wander into the kids’ room. Taylor sleeps, and I pull the covers around him and kiss his forehead.

I walk downstairs to check the hearth. The fire is almost out. I climb upstairs and fall back into bed, but an hour later, panic wakes me. I wander the halls. It is still in the house, too still. A thin veil of smoke lingers in the air. I force myself to go back to bed.

Within an hour, I am awake again. I stand in the kids’ room. The house seems smokier than it did before, but how can that be when the fire burned out hours ago? I crack a window, return to bed, and fall into a dead sleep.

[pullquote] If I drop him, he may break bones or suffer a bad injury. If I do nothing, I will burn to death, and he will fall. [/pullquote]

Inside the inferno

I hear screams. It’s Troy. “Hollye! Get out of the house!”

Hearing the panic in his voice, I bolt upright. I run to the bedroom door and swing it open, and I am blown back, knocked to the floor. Searing heat and black smoke overtake me, burning my skin. Through the deafening roar of fire, a smoke alarm whines like a mosquito. I gasp for breath and crawl across the floor, gagging. The smell of that fire is something I will never forget. It is not the cozy smell of a campfire but the putrid stench of synthetic carpeting, drywall plaster, and household appliances melting, the toxic cloud of our life disintegrating.

Without knowing how, I have Taylor in my arms and am at his bedroom window. When I open it, ashes and smoke blow through as the heat is pulled toward us. There’s fire behind me, a 30-foot drop to concrete below.

Troy shouts from another window, “Hold on! I’m coming—I’m gonna jump!” Then the sickening sound of bones against cement. I scream his name, but he doesn’t respond. I start to cry, but there is no time for panic.

I lower Taylor out his window as far as my arms will stretch so he can breathe. I hold only his tiny hands, his body dangling. I am in the center of the firestorm. I choke, spitting out black grease. Blisters rise on the backs of my legs; the pain becomes unbearable. I have to do something. But there is no grass below, no trees or bushes.

My brain searches for options. If I hold Taylor while I jump, I could crush him. I have to let go of his hands. I know that if I do this, he may break bones or suffer a bad injury. But if I do nothing, I will burn to death, and he will fall. Stretching my body to make his drop as short as possible, I lower him as far as I can, until I’m holding just the ends of his chubby fingers. The smoke is so thick, I can’t see him. I beg God to protect him. I let go. At that very moment, Troy shouts, “Drop him! I’m here!”

I scramble out the window. I take a deep breath, then fall. I hear the thump of a hip against concrete, but it’s as though it happened to someone else. I feel nothing. Troy yanks me to my feet. Taylor is clutched to his chest. “I caught him,” Troy says. We look at each other in disbelief. We are alive.

We run. All three levels are consumed, flames shooting out the windows. The sight of the burning doghouse jolts me. “Oh, God! The animals!” I wail. Troy hands Taylor to me and goes back with a few neighbors. As they near the house, the windows blow out. There is no way to get back in.

A neighbor cries, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!” She screams, “Her little girl is in there!”

Cissy. Cissy. I am disoriented, doubting my own memory. I grab Troy’s arm. “Cissy’s not in there, right?” I become hysterical, squeezing my son, who is silent and dazed.

Troy grips my arms and says in a firm voice, “Hollye, she’s at her dad’s house. Look at me, Hollye! She’s safe!”

Troy will later tell me that I repeated this scenario many times that night. There is mayhem in my head, mayhem in the street. I watch as our life goes up in flames, knowing our animals are dead. Troy wraps his arms around Taylor and me. He whispers, maybe to himself, maybe to me, maybe to God. “We will come back stronger.”

I want to believe him, my sunny, optimistic man. But that morning, he was the one who told me my nightmare was just a dream. Now I am wide-awake, and the nightmare is real.

[pullquote] By night, Troy and I are plagued with nightmares. By day, we’re surrounded with love. [/pullquote]

Up From the Ashes

Days after the fire, I wake to the smell of stuffing and the sounds of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on TV. Is it Thanksgiving? I sit in my mother’s kitchen. “Morning, sweetie! Coffee’s made. Want some?” she offers.

All week long, cars pulled up to my mom’s house with donations. Calls come from friends, and they suggest a benefit concert. By night, Troy and I are plagued with nightmares. By day, we’re surrounded with love. We’ve been given the chance to feel something most will never know—to be held by hundreds of unseen hands—a comforting yet overwhelming sensation. Here we are on this day of giving thanks, grateful, yes, and also tired of being grateful and needy.

We spend the day digging through bags of stuff. Some people used the fire as an excuse to get rid of junk, and this helps us laugh again.

Used underwear? Bonanza!

A bag full of jockstraps? You shouldn’t have!

A wet suit? Skis from the 1970s? We’re homeless. But thanks!

Later, we shower and dress. With the kids looking sharp in their outfits, the doorbell rings. My mom answers it and returns to us. She says, “There’s a guy from the Red Cross here.”

It turns out the Red Cross had been at our fire that night, providing food and water to the firefighters. We hadn’t contacted it, but the Red Cross doesn’t wait for you to ask. Our representative, Frank [not his real name], is stocky, with a salt-and-pepper beard. “Right now, you’re in what’s called the honeymoon phase of tragedy,” he says. “You’re surrounded by people showing up to support you. Donations are coming in. You’re getting phone calls every day. But soon, those things will taper off, and you’ll be left picking up the pieces.” He hands me the card of a therapist. “We’ve arranged some free counseling for the four of you.” He gives us bags with toiletries, and teddy bears and blankets for the kids. “Here are gift certificates so you can get personal items like underwear and socks.”

There is something about Frank’s ease that makes my shoulders relax. He is the first person we’ve talked to who gets it. He understands we have no driver’s licenses, no Social Security cards, no bank cards, no birth certificates. He knows utilities have to be canceled and mail rerouted because there is no house where the charred mailbox stands. He gives us directions and advice on how to begin again.

We go to my aunt Laura’s house for dinner, Troy with a sprained ankle and me with a bandaged wrist and a burned ear. Aunts, uncles, and cousins descend upon us with hugs and sniffling. We chat in the kitchen, and every time Troy and I cough from smoke inhalation, we receive more hugs and choruses of “Are you OK?” Somehow, after meeting with Frank, I feel I am.

At dinner, we hold hands, and everyone thanks God for looking out for us. Then it comes time for the prayer. Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob, born-again Christians, always say grace. We bow our heads, waiting for the opening line, “Heavenly Father.” Instead, Aunt Laura says, “Troy, would you lead us in prayer tonight?”

We all jerk our heads up. My husband has faith in people, in goodness, in love. But he has no faith in religion. After a moment of hesitation, he says, “Yes. I’d love to, actually.” He begins, “Heavenly Father, we thank you for this meal tonight and for all the love in this room. We thank you for our family and friends, for the opportunity to be here together”—he pauses—“and that we are alive.” His voice breaks. “Please, God, help me get back on my feet, so that I can give back.”

I squeeze his hand tight. There’s a loud chorus of “Amen.” A few of us wipe tears away as we pass the mashed potatoes and pour the wine. Oh yes, please pour the wine.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest