Morning walk takes a turn toward tragedy

January 04, 2000|By Susan Reimer

MY FRIEND Susan and I "power walk" through the neighbor- hoods of Annapolis as often as we can, and last Thursday was a perfect day for it -- so sunny and warm that we soon shed our jackets and tied them around our waists.

Our husbands were off from work and at home to ride herd on the kids during the holiday week between Christmas and New Year's, and it gave us the opportunity for a long, long trek. The perfect exclamation point for 1999.

We found ourselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood, looking for a wooded trail that sounded promising, when suddenly we spotted a wisp of smoke, no more than what might emanate from a lighted cigarette, escaping from the window air conditioner in a little wooden cottage.

"It's a house fire," I gasped. I ran to a neighboring house, where I pounded and yelled for someone to call 911. But no one was home there, or at three other houses.

Susan ran to alert anyone inside the burning house, but almost immediately, a mother and her 5-year-old son were out the front door. While Susan lifted the boy over a fence to safety, his frantic mother ran to the back of the house.

Carrying the boy, Susan found a neighbor with a cell phone. When she called out to me, I looked back from a neighbor's porch. I could no longer see the little cottage; it was obliterated by billowing, thick smoke.

And then began the most awful 30 minutes.

The young mother was shrieking that her baby was still in the house. Her 11-month-old boy was trapped in an upstairs bedroom, but she could not go back for him. Smoke poured from the house in enormous black clouds, and fire filled the front doorway.

Not two minutes had passed since we first saw that telltale finger of gray smoke. Fire raced through the little house as if someone had pushed a fast-forward button.

But time stopped for us as we listened helplessly to the young mother scream in frantic despair, her wails only interrupted by choking sobs. Her cries seemed to rise and fall in waves, as if she were realizing again and again that her child was trapped in the burning house.

It seemed like forever -- though it was not -- until firefighters arrived. The young mother railed at them to rescue her child. "Don't leave him to die! You are leaving him to die!" she shrieked. Then she clutched at her heart and collapsed onto the cold, damp ground.

The fire roared. Windows exploded. Someone said the young woman's husband had been called home.

I saw him arrive, parking behind the emergency vehicles and walking with his arms outstretched toward his wife.

I watched as she told him that it was not just the house, that their baby was still inside. It was as if someone had pushed the mute button on a wrenching TV movie, and I saw the conversation play out soundlessly across their faces.

He pushed her back, grabbed her shoulders, looked hard into her face, demanding that she repeat what he could not believe he had heard.

Then the young father literally tore at his hair, thrashed helplessly at the air, screamed at the sky. As he raced madly in one direction and then another, his wife collapsed on the sidewalk again.

All this time, the 5-year-old boy clung to Susan and me as if we were his favorite aunts. He reached from one of us to the other, searching in one set of arms for the comfort that he could find in neither.

He wanted his mother, but she was too wild with grief for her dying child.

When enough neighbors and relatives had arrived, when the young mother could at last turn to her surviving child, Susan and I gave our names to the police and departed.

No. We fled.

Firefighters would soon bring out the body of the baby boy, and we could not bear to witness that as well. Already we had seen more than our hearts could take in.

Susan and I finished our morning walk, begun with such sunny promise, on wobbly legs and in smoky clothes. We talked and wept and cursed out loud in a poor imitation of the young mother's despair.

Why am I telling you this dreadful story?

In part, to purge myself of sorrow. I keep thinking that each retelling will dull the sound of the mother's screams that echo inside my head.

But mostly I want you to help. I want to move you to act.

Jennifer and Tracy Washburn lost their infant son, Kyle, in that fire, along with everything they own. Tracy Jr. was not wearing shoes or a jacket when his mother brought him out of the burning house.

Sit down now, before the impact of this story fades, and write a check to The Washburn Family Fund and mail it today to Sandy Spring National Bank, 2024 West St., Annapolis, Md. 21401.

Do not read this and weep. Do not put this newspaper down and count your blessings. Do not resolve to love your children more and scold them less.

Do something. Send money. Help this young family begin its mournful trip into a bereft future.

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