Aid, comfort showered on family after tragic fire

February 13, 2000

The house where 11-month-old Kyle Washburn died is no longer there. The owners were also his grandparents, and they demolished the burned-out shell and had the charred debris hauled away. A smooth expanse of snow, unmarred by footprints and made shiny by freezing rain, now covers the yard and the place where the house once stood.

A white teddy bear tied to the chain-link fence is all that remains of the tributes placed there by mourners. The last bit of yellow police tape flaps from the fence in a cold wind.

Six weeks ago, a fire, apparently started in a Christmas tree made especially brittle by last summer's drought, chased Jennifer Washburn, 23, and her 6-year-old son, Tracy, from the home in Annapolis -- before they could reach Kyle.

As his mother screamed in heartbreaking grief from outside the burning house, her baby died in the second-floor bedroom where he was napping. The fire burned so fast that she had no chance to go back and rescue him. Her husband, Tracy Sr., 24, returned from an errand to find his house on fire and to learn that his youngest son had not escaped.

By chance, I watched this tragedy play out from the first wisps of smoke to the father's cries of disbelief. A friend and I, taking a long walk on a morning just before New Year's, witnessed the loss of a child, something no parent dares let his mind touch upon.

We did what we could do. We alerted neighbors who called 911, and then we cradled the 6-year-old while his mother suffered in frantic grief.

Then I did what I could do. I wrote a column describing what happened, hoping it would purge my brain of the sound of Jennifer Washburn's heartbreak, and asking readers to do more than commiserate. I asked them to send money to a fund set up to help the family.

And many, many did.

To date, more than 2,000 checks have arrived at Sandy Springs National Bank in Annapolis to help the young family begin again. Bank Vice President Sonny Walker politely declined to give a total. "Checks have come from Baltimore, Towson, Ellicott City, Frederick, Sykesville, Columbia and Eldersburg in Maryland. Checks have also come from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Florida and Washington, D.C.," said Walker.

Among the checks were four totaling $228.40 from the students at Resurrection-St. Paul School in Ellicott City. They held a bake sale during lunchtime to raise the donation. "Their spirit of compassion and willingness to help were absolutely heartwarming," wrote Mary Zimmer, their teacher.

More than money has arrived to comfort the Washburns. A quilting guild made a quilt for the couple and another for their son. A shopping bag of toilet articles was left on the doorstep.

Furniture, blankets and clothes arrived. So many household items, in fact, that the family was able to take two truckloads of duplicates and extras to other families who endured holiday house fires. More is waiting to be sorted and donated to Annapolis charities.

A child sent toys and wrote to young Tracy, "I know you don't have any of your Christmas toys so I am sharing mine."

One couple called to offer an apartment, rent-free, for three months. A woman called in tears. She woke the day after the funeral of her 23-year-old daughter to read of the Washburns' tragedy and offered all her daughter's furniture and household items. "I felt like it was a message from God, a way for me to go on," she said, her own grief still so fresh.

Gift certificates and gift cards arrived from area merchants. Someone donated 1,500 pre-printed thank-you notes, and Walker says it is clear the family will need more. "It has been overwhelming," said Walker. "Just overwhelming."

People shared their pain, too. An elderly couple from Wisconsin sent $10, wrote to say they understood the family's grief, and spoke of their "11 still-living children."

Another reader from that state sent a check and described how, when she was 16, she arrived to pick up a girlfriend for their first day at a new job and found her house on fire. Her friend died inside that house while the rest of her family waited and wailed. "Twenty-five years have passed and I think of the tragedy often, especially with the sounds of sirens and the sight of smoke," she wrote.

I have not spoken with Tracy and Jennifer Washburn since that terrible morning. I haven't had the courage to hear the pain in their voices or see the grief in their faces.

A friend of theirs called to say that they are living with his parents but will move soon to a place of their own, one close by. The neighborhood of their tragedy is also one filled with family and friends. "They wouldn't want to be too far from where Kyle is buried," said the friend.

Young Tracy is back in school and his mother has returned to her job. But his father is a fencing contractor and his grandfather is a roofer and the enforced idleness of winter has made it hard on them, the friend said. They have too much time on their hands. Too much time to think.

The letters and notes that were enclosed with so many of the checks are a testament to all that is good in people, I think.

Writers shared their own losses. They quoted the Bible and offered religious inspiration. The depth of their compassion gave their messages eloquence. "The love showered on [the Washburns] will make them stronger," wrote one reader. "I will always believe that we are a truly caring nation."

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