Beauty in the wreckage of a suburban house fire 

It was a neighbor from a nearby street who first saw the flames. The morning was cool. The woodsy suburban street lay deserted. And fire was roaring in the upstairs side window of a pretty, white clapboard house.

By the time the fire engines arrived, not 10 minutes later, the blaze had advanced to the middle of the house and was rapidly devouring everything it touched.

No one was home, thank God — not even the dog.

But the pictures on the walls, the curtains and mattresses, the clothes and shoes and children’s drawings, the passports and wedding pictures, and all the other tender tokens of normal life — everything, within those few minutes, was either consumed by fire or drenched to the point of ruin by soot and torrents of water from firefighters’ hoses.

By afternoon, the place was gutted, its windows boarded up, and the detritus of private lives lay strewn about the front door.
There’s almost nothing uglier than a burned-out family home. It’s a shocking thing, to see a domestic haven torn open by the brute force of a chemical reaction.

Yet, this house fire, in its ugliness, has laid bare a kind of beauty.

It’s not physical beauty (there’s nothing charming about charred walls). It is a civic beauty, a grace, manifest in the quick wits, resourcefulness and loving generosity of neighbors. Within seconds of the fire’s discovery, e-mails were flying:

“The neighbor’s houses on both sides may be in danger — please contact them!”

“Someone [on a cross street] just asked me to e-mail to say that the smoke is billowing that way and if anyone has windows open to shut them.”

“Has anyone found the owners?”

“I did and they were on the way home already —”

Soon another e-mail went out: “Everyone is safe. The visible fire is out.”

At the site, the owners stood gazing at the ruins of their home with the Zen-like tranquility of people who have just been forcefully reminded of what matters in life. Their children were alive. “It’s just stuff,” the husband said.

Ah, but the children themselves, in the way of children, could not quite join the adults in their brave steadfastness. Tearfully they collected a few mementos and put them in a suitcase by the curb, near their car.

What happened next showed both the worst and best of a place like suburban Washington, D.C. Clicking their inboxes, the people of the neighborhood were aghast to learn that while the family was next door, “... a dry-cleaning service truck came by and stole the suitcase!” (That was, at least, the most obvious explanation; the suitcase was certainly gone.)

As more e-mails rocketed around, with everyone wracking their memories of what trucks they’d seen that day, one doughty resident decided she simply couldn’t stand it.

“I watched their house burn up,” she told a friend, “and I just could not let that suitcase thing go.”

So she went door to door, looking for anyone who had received a dry-cleaning delivery. “Incredibly, she put the pieces together, made a few persistent phone calls and located the suitcase,” another neighborly e-mail explained.

“Amazingly, the owner of the business had GPS tracking installed on the truck and could actually see that the truck had stopped for a moment at the [burned] house.”

It can sometimes seem that our civic life is fraying to the point of danger. What happened this week, in one local neighborhood, shows the goodness and beauty that still, mercifully, underlies it.

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.

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