Eileen Kirschenbaum is standing amid the burnt wreckage of her home, yet she talks about everything that survived the fire: her life’s passions. Eileen is an inventor, painter, rock collector, and lover of all things technological. She sweeps her hand over the blackened surfaces of her former home. “I feel I’ve accomplished so much,” she says. “It was all here, I put my heart and soul into this home.”
Eileen conjures the last time she was in the room where the fire started. Pointing to burnt objects, she paints a picture of a cherished space brimming with memories. Like those of her cat Bozie. She talks about their nightly rituals, profound bond, and the trauma of losing Bozie in the fire. “The loss is overwhelming,” she said.
Still perplexed at the fire’s suddenness, Eileen recounts the events of that night. “Everything was fine,” she said. “Nothing was out of order.” She was stepping out of the shower when the smoke alarm sounded. “There was a loud ‘POP’,” she said. “I ran to the stairs and there was smoke pouring up from the basement, so I ran down and tried to get into the room.” She was about to open the door when she heard another loud burst.
“I’ll never forget it—It was like Mount St. Helens.” She recalls black smoke and ash pouring over everything, “When it hit me, my throat closed shut.” She describes her disorientation and dropping to the floor, “It was so black, like being underwater.” Just clad in her terry cloth robe, she ran back upstairs and outside. “I just watched the flames,” she says, recalling her immense shock. “It all seemed to go on forever.”
Eileen beams with gratitude as she describes how quickly Red Cross volunteers helped her go from freezing in her wet robe, to being safe, warm, and secure with essentials. “They were right by my side the entire time until everything was under control.” Recalling their patience and proficiency, she says that the volunteers must have made a hundred calls that night to provide her with food, replace destroyed medication, and supply a cash card to buy basic necessities. “They were outstanding,” she said. “They put everything I needed right in my hands.”
Prior to that night of the fire, Eileen thought the Red Cross only responded to grand scale events like Hurricane Katrina “But here they were,” she said, “addressing the grand scale and value of one little person.” Inspired and grateful for the volunteers’ efforts, Eileen is now planning on becoming a volunteer herself. “It’s given me direction in all of this,” she said.
It’s been a slow recovery, but Eileen says she’s coming around, “I’ve finally been able to feel a little bit like myself again.” Just yesterday she started moving what she’s salvaged to her new home. “Everything I pick up stops me in my tracks,” she said. Eileen admits that while much is irretrievable, even irreplaceable, still she has found hope. “If you can find something, some idea, some item or ritual that reminds you who you are,” she said, “if you can find any part of yourself to retrieve from all of this—black, then you’ll be ok.”