My House is On Fire! What Shall I Save?

Carolyn’s Online Magazine


What Should I Save?

 It was a dark and stormy night…

I know that this sentence, the line first used by the English Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton as the opening line of his novel Paul Clifford, is poo-pooed as an introductory sentence for a writing. It is described as

  • “the literary posterchild for bad story starters.”
  • the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing.
  • purple prose, an overly extravagant writing style.
  • in general, a cliché.

But what’s a person to do if the story’s actual setting is a dark and stormy night? Such was the setting on the night of June 8, 1993, the night our family home burned.


At the time my husband Monte and I lived in a town 20 minutes away from our Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, family home, which was rented out while he fulfilled his calling to ministry. On the property we also had an apartment building with a small basement apartment we kept for a getaway. These dwellings are 1500 feet off a country road, surrounded by woods and a field. There were no car lights, house lights, or street lights. At night it was dark.

On June 8 we were staying at the apartment, relaxing. It was raining—actually, it was a violent storm—but we were cozy in our digs.

And yes, it was a dark and stormy night. Or, Monte’s version: It was dark and still raining quite hard. And lightning hit swiftly and frequently.

Our relaxation was broken by a thunderous crash so disruptive that I went to the upstairs tenants and asked if I could look out their window to see if lightning had hit a tree in the woods between the two dwellings. The rain was pounding the window and lightning made each individual tree stand out. After examining the woods lit by continuous lightning flashes I determined there was nothing to be worried about. I returned to the book I was reading.

Suddenly I heard my tenant screaming: YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE!

We ran upstairs and looked out the window again. This time we could clearly see flames on the southern side of the house. We quickly called 911. I donned a rain cape, grabbed my camera and some paper, and headed up the hill…in the dark and stormy night, our way only revealed by the constant lightning flashes, often several striking at the same time.

BłyskawicaWhen we reached the crest of the hill we saw firefighters from three fire companies (Slippery Rock, West Sunbury, and Center Township) dousing the blaze which had fully enveloped the south side of the house. The house tenants had called 911 before we realized there was a fire.


There was nothing we could do at this point, so Monte and I stood outside helpless as the firemen worked to bring the fire under control. I pulled out my expensive camera. My new camera. In the dousing rain.

And I did something that was forbidden when taking pictures of a fire: I used my flash (something NOT done at fires because firemen might be fooled into thinking it’s a fire flashback—and that could be dangerous). I’d asked a fireman about it, and he confirmed it was OK—with all the lightning strikes a miniscule camera flash wouldn’t be noticed. Carolyn did get some spectacular pictures of the fire Monte would say later. 930602-04eThree fire companies (Slippery Rock, West Sunbury, and Center Township) responded quickly and began to douse the blaze which ad fully enveloped the south side of the house. It was a dark and stormy night, rain pounding down on the firefighters working hard to stop the fire.

930602-10bEThe blaze was brought under control by using trucks and pumpers, their water supply coming from a pond near West Sunbury. The road to West Sunbury was closed for several hours.

As for the two tenants, one was at the foot of the basement steps and the other in the kitchen at the top of the steps when lightning struck our transformer (atop a power pole) and ran to the house on underground wires. According to them, there was pink lightning that night.


You’d think that my camera would be among the top five items I would rescue from a fire. Not so. It can be replaced.

In this fire we had little to lose, and nothing to rescue. After all, we weren’t living in our family home. The only item we had at the house was a good friend’s player piano, which was being stored in the basement. The fire never hit the basement, but the water ruined the instrument.

There were a couple of remarkable events during the fire.

  • As I was watching the firemen I felt some items thrust into my arms. A fireman had run by and thrown them at me. It was a couple of photographs. Later I learned that when the firemen entered a house during a fire, on their way out they would grab something off the walls and carry it outside, throwing it into the arms of an observer. They also brought items from the house and gave them to the tenants.


  • One of our tenants had broken her lease by subletting her baseent apartment to someone we didn’t know. We learned there was a dog in this apartment (no pets allowed without permission). A fireman took the dog to an ambulance and administered oxygen. He wouldn’t let me photograph him using the oxygen, but he let me take a picture of him holding the dog, which, by the way, proved to be OK.


Now, back to the question posed in the January 29, 2015 WordPress daily prompt: Burning down the house…Your home is on fire. Grab five items (assume all people and animals are safe). What did you grab?

I’ve already said it wouldn’t be my camera. Furniture, clothing, etc. can also be replaced. What can’t be replaced are important papers and electronic data.

What five things I’d grab, then, in no particular order:

  1. My genealogy files
  2. Our computer with flash drives attached
  3. My tetra drive holding all my digital photographs
  4. A box containing an 1845 family concordance and old photographs
  5. Our file of important papers

Fortunately, that June 8th night I didn’t have to make that choice. And I learned another lesson: keep copies of your valuable papers, your work, and your photographs stored in a location away from your dwelling. It just might save you from lots of work in the event of a catastrophe.

The aftermath...

The aftermath…

About carolyncholland

In several if my nine lives I have been a medical lab technician and a human service worker specializing in child day care, adoptions and family abuse. Currently I am a photo/journalist/writer working on a novel and a short story. My general writings can be viewed at My novel site is
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1 Response to My House is On Fire! What Shall I Save?

  1. Grace ( & Fred) Wells says:

    Glad you are alive and well to tell this story and pass on words of wisdom


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