Fire Escape

Author: H. Patrick Weber '71, '74 J.D.

On that typical late August Saturday in suburban Cincinnati — hot and humid with a forecast of evening thunderstorms — I convinced myself that the grass was too damp to cut early in the morning. That meant I could take a five-mile walk with Courtney, who would be leaving for her junior year at Notre Dame the following weekend.

The third of our children to attend Notre Dame, Courtney was excited about seeing her campus friends again and looking forward to her spring semester in London. And we were both anxious to see her sister, Carmen, a 2001 Notre Dame graduate and a graduate student at Ohio State University, who was due to arrive soon. My wife, Marilyn, treasures the rare opportunities to have both of her daughters with her.

The weekend grass-cutting routine is my scheduled escape from the world of cell phones, voice mail, faxes and e-mail. My day in the yard was completed as the three women in my life returned from shopping. We enjoyed a quiet dinner at home, attended Saturday evening Mass and stopped at the local sweet shop. The predicted thunderstorm arrived at 10 p.m. and continued unabated as we prepared for bed shortly before midnight.

I awakened, startled, at 1:15 a.m. as the bedroom door opened and Courtney entered on her hands and knees. She crawled to Marilyn’s side of the bed and said, “What’s wrong?” Marilyn asked what she meant, and Courtney again said, “What’s wrong?” We both realized from the glazed look in her eyes that she was asleep. She had never sleep-walked (or sleep-crawled) before. Marilyn shook her, and Courtney awakened. “I’m sorry,” she said. “What am I doing in your room? I’m going back to bed.” Marilyn walked her back to her bedroom. The thunderstorm continued to rage outside.

Seconds later, my clock radio began playing music. I rolled over to turn it off, but it kept playing. Marilyn returned to the bedroom and asked why I had turned the radio on. I explained that it had come on by itself, and I couldn’t turn it off. She found the clock-radio plug and disconnected it from the outlet.

Lying in bed and listening to the roar of the storm, I decided I needed a trip to the bathroom before I could fall asleep again. I was surprised to discover that the lights in the bathroom weren’t working. I thought that this was strange because the bedroom lights and the hallway lights were functioning. I told Marilyn that I was headed to the basement electrical panel board to reset a circuit breaker.

As I neared the door to the second floor hallway, I caught a whiff of smoke. It was subtle, and none of the eight smoke alarms in the house reacted to it. My first thought was that we had an electrical short circuit. I ran to the basement electrical panel board but found that none of the circuit breakers had been tripped.

Marilyn was checking the kitchen. She turned on the outside floodlights and yelled to me that she saw smoke in the backyard. I ran up the basement stairs to the patio door. Billowing clouds of black smoke filled the backyard, but I did not see any flames. I ran out into the storm and looked back at the house. Black smoke was rolling out of the ridge vent at the peak of the roof and from the air intake vents under the eaves. Our attic was on fire!

I ran back into the house to tell everyone that the attic was on fire. Marilyn called 911. The four of us went out the front door and stood in the front yard. The storm raged on as we stood in our wet night clothes and surveyed the surreal scene before us.

The fire department trucks began to arrive. The first fireman to enter the attic went through the ceiling trap door with a full oxygen suit and a thermal imaging device. He later reported to us that all of the roof trusses and roof sheeting were glowing like red charcoal. He explained that a confined attic fire is starved for oxygen. It burns and builds up pressure until it burns through the roof to obtain the needed oxygen, and then it explodes downward, blowing out the house’s ceiling, windows and doors in a blowtorch-like backdraft of flames.

The firefighter told us that we were lucky to get out alive, because the fire would have burned through the roof in 10 to 15 minutes and “you wouldn’t have known what hit you.” He asked us what had awakened us. “Attic fires don’t set off smoke alarms,” he said. I described to him the miraculous series of events: Courtney’s sleep-crawling, the clock radio music and the bathroom lights that didn’t work. He said, “Somebody upstairs is looking out for you.”

When the firefighters completed their work, they invited us to slosh through the debris to view the source of the fire. A lightning bolt had hit the peak of the roof and had shattered three roof trusses. The fire started in the attic and had burned for 30 to 45 minutes before we awakened. The point of impact in the attic was directly over the hallway wall between our bedroom and Courtney’s bedroom. On the hallway side of that wall hangs a plaque of Our Lady of Guadalupe that our daughters had brought back from a mission trip to Mexico. On the other side of that wall hangs a photograph of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at the University of Notre Dame. Clearly, somebody upstairs had been looking out for us.

Our son Kevin, a 1997 ND graduate, had arrived from his apartment to share this emotional experience with us. When the firemen departed at 4:30 a.m., the five of us stood with locked arms in a prayer circle, giving thanks to God that our lives had been spared.

We needed a place to unwind before the insurance adjuster’s 7 a.m. arrival. My parents were at their summer cottage in Michigan, so I knew that we could use their Cincinnati home. Shortly after we arrived at their home, my father’s alarm clock went off. We thought we had received all of the wake-up calls that we needed that morning.

After a brief respite, we went back to survey our home’s damage in the daylight. The insurance adjuster estimated that it would take six months to repair the damage. (He was one week short.) My sister and her husband, who live nearby, arrived to help us move furniture out of water-logged rooms. They left to dress for Sunday morning Mass, but my sister almost immediately drove back up our driveway. She was flushed and crying. I could barely make out what she was saying. “Dad’s dead. Mom just found him dead in the bed this morning.”

I was dumbstruck. I had not yet comprehended the reality of the fire, and now I was being told of my father’s death. We quickly joined in our family prayer circle again to pray for the repose of the soul of my father, Harry P. Weber.

I have learned a lot from the events of August 19, 2001: The odds of a house being struck by lightning in a given year are 200 to 1. The heat of a lightning bolt is up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A heat alarm should be installed in your attic and hard-wired to the smoke alarms in your house. It is advisable to install a lightning rod system on the roof (we now have 12 lightning rods) to channel the flow of the lightning’s electrical current into the ground.

Most importantly, I have learned that your parents never stop looking out for you, even after they are dead.

H. Patrick Weber is an attorney with Barrett & Weber in Cincinnati.