My friends who know me are aware that I live in Brockway, Pennsylvania, a small rural community of about 2300 people in Western Pennsylvania. By now, probably many of you have seen the national news coverage of the horrific house fire we had here in town earlier this week. It has put our little community on the national scene at least for a time – and not in the way we would have wished, to be sure.
Douglas Peterson, father, grandfather, and greatgrandfather of 9 of the 10 people who lost their lives in that fire is a friend of mine and many in our community. I’m an insurance broker, and Doug has been a client of mine since I started my agency 20 years ago. I see him often, and I don’t believe I have ever seen him that he didn’t always have a smile on his face. He’s one of those “sweet” guys – always smiling, always happy, always has a kind word for everyone. Those people are very rare, and you always know them when you see them.
Needless to say, the loss of this large family has been unbearable for Doug, his surviving family members and friends, and our town at large. Just about all those kids that were lost were spread out among several of the grades in the local school. And like the news keeps pointing out, we’re a very small town here – the kind where everyone knows everyone. Of course, that’s good and bad… bad that just about everyone knows your business and we all hear everything about everyone else. You know the type of town – small, close knit. News travels fast. But it’s good in the way that when a tragedy strikes like this, you quickly find out just how many friends you really have. Everyone pulls together to help others out. All of our responders – the fire fighters, the ambulance personnel, the fire police, etc., are all volunteers. They do it because they like helping people. Responders here leave their job to fight fires and run the ambulance, and I can tell you that our operations are second to none. Brockway’s responders could be a model for any city, large or small.
That fire was so fast, so hot, that it was impossible for the responders to have done more than they could. For Doug Peterson, it’s a blessing amongst a tragedy that he has his son, a granddaughter, and several other family members still with him. Now they will be his strength, as will his many friends in this community. And he will need them, just like we need him – it will be a long while before he realizes the latter.
Today, there is a viewing and memorial service in the auditorium of our Brockway High School. It was originally planned to run from 2-4pm and 7-9pm today, but the enormously long line of folks standing outside the school quickly scrapped that idea – they’re going to keep it continuously open as long as folks want to come. And, they’re coming. I rode by twice today and both times the line was about 400 feet long, with probably that many people in it. My wife and I plan to go later tonite, when she gets off work. All we can do is stand in line and wait our turn.
Since shortly after the fire, there have been multitudes of those “satellite trucks” from the media all over town. It’s as if Hollywood descended on our little community, like watching that footage of how this happens when there’s a big court case or something going on with a celebrity. From what I’ve heard, Brockway now has the distinction of suffering the largest loss of life in a house fire in the history of Pennsylvania. That’s certainly a record we would have preferred never setting.
The survivors of the Peterson family will eventually heal some from this disaster, as will their close friends and the town. But we will certainly never get over it. The family didn’t have much, but they did the best with what they had. The investigators are looking at the scenario of one or more space heaters causing this fire, since the natural gas had been shut off from the Peterson home since May of 2005 – nearly three years. I can’t help but think maybe this can serve as a bit of a wake-up call for others in the same situation… if the gas and/or other utilities are shut off at a home because a family can’t afford it, someone (maybe local or county officials) could check on that family to see how they’re heating their home. This particular home was a large, 2-story dwelling, and it would have taken a lot of space heaters to make it habitable considering the often-brutal winters we get here in Western Pennsylvania. There are assistance programs available in cases like this, and maybe the next such tragedy could be avoided. When things calm down some, perhaps this should be the subject of discussion both here and across the country. There are probably thousands of other families in a similar situation.
Soon the satellite trucks will move on to the next story, and folks around here in our little town will get on with their lives. The Petersons have a lot of healing to do, and their friends here will help them get through it. Everyone will talk about this for years to come, of course, and we will never forget this tragedy that befell our community and one of its nicest families. We lost infants, mothers, brothers, sisters… and Douglas Peterson Sr. most certainly lost much of himself.
There’s a lot of tragedy going on in this world, we all have our own problems, and the news is so often not good. But if you find it in your heart, please take a moment to throw a prayer out to one of our town’s families if you’re so inclined. I’ve always believed a lot of quiet prayers makes a big noise in Heaven.
We could use it. Thanks.