A fire, a shattered family, a way to help
Duluth News Tribune
Paper Edition 7-31-2021
When I saw the fire engines, ambulances, and police cars blocking off the street three blocks away, I thought it was just another fender bender at the four-way stop of 6th Street and Beaser. I needed a walk, the accident was near my walking path, so I adjusted my course to try to avoid it. When I got to 6th Street, I glanced back, and spotted the white, story-and-a-half house, charred from the doused fire that left its mark above each and every window. I knew in that instant that my world would be turned upside down. “I know those people,” I said, feeling the panic heaving from my chest. My eyes locked onto the upstairs bedroom window that was destroyed from smoke and broken glass.
Jordan Chowning and Angie Morales, who lived in that house, were two of my daughter’s four caregivers who made my weekend getaways possible. My daughter, Kristi, has paraplegic-like disabilities that require round-the clock care. Kristi loved them both.
I glanced over to a passerby who seemed to be in a hurry to leave the scene and said, “I know those people. The two women who live there are my daughter’s caregivers. Is everyone okay?”
I was begging for an answer I could see was most likely improbable.
I knew that Jordan, her husband Duane, and her children Michelle and Alyssa used the 2nd floor bedrooms. Angie and her boyfriend, Mitch, had the bedroom in the basement. Angie’s 14-year-old son, and 7-year-old son, slept on the main floor.
The man sadly shook his head in what appeared to be disbelief, “There are deceased.”
“Nooo,” I choked, grasping onto my mouth and nose. I felt the tears well.
I forced myself to stay on the opposite side of the street. With no civilians in the one-block radius, I felt I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I was desperate to get some answers. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend that someone had died.
I spotted a man who was on his cell phone and appeared to be just as dazed and confused as I. Losing all politeness, I stood next to him and reached for his arm. Feeling the tremble in my hand I asked, “Do you know what happened? My friends live there. Did somebody really die?”
The kindly man ended his phone call. He said he just happened to be walking by. He told me he owned the house. I learned he knew nothing more than I.
An investigator came across the street and inquired if we were related to the family.
I said, “The two women in the house are my daughter’s caregivers.” I told him where each of the family members bedrooms were.
The man I stood next to said, “I own the house.”
The investigator took out his notebook, and I turned away. I had nothing of importance to offer.
Knowing I wouldn’t get any answers from the emergency responders, I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to hold my body together, and headed for my home. The sobs wrenched my chest as I walked the three blocks home.
When I got in my house, I went right for my cell phone. My fingers trembled as I searched for Jordan’s name. It was 11:11am. When her cell phone started to ring, I whispered my plea, ‘ . . . Please answer . . . Please answer . . . ’ No answer.
The next person I dialed was Angie at 11:12am. I felt the panic in my chest, and once again chanted my prayer, ‘. . . Please answer . . . Please, please answer.’ The tears were returning. No answer.
I dialed Morgan, Jordan’s 18-year-old daughter who was still getting trained to work with Kristi. Morgan didn’t live with her mother, she lived in Iron River, 30 miles away. It was 11:13. No Answer.
I felt the vomit curling in my stomach. It just wasn’t possible, and yet it was.
In a panic, I texted Morgan at 11:22am. I wrote, I know something bad happened. My heart is breaking. Is everyone ok? Prayers and love to you.
I checked Facebook to see if there were any reports. I didn’t find any. I googled fire, 6th street, Ashland, WI. What I found was worse than anything I could have imagined. The report stated that three people died in the fire. Although no names were released, I knew in my gut that one of the two families, either Jordan’s on the second floor, or Angie’s in the basement, had perished.
‘Too unbearable to think about’
With Kristi away at camp for the week, my husband, Andy, and I had already made a commitment to leave for Mora, MN that Monday, July 5th, to pick up our builder and his family. Menno had our designer staircase built and ready to haul and install. Andy would drive the truck and trailer; I would drive the 12-passenger van. That’s the part about building an Amish cabin. If you want them at your job site, it is up to you to get them there.
With no other choice but to wait for the answer, we packed our truck for the trip. The soothing sound of the tires on the pavement created a quiet space for me to think about the trio of Jordan, Morgan, and Angie.
Their families were tightly connected, and the loss of one person, let alone three, was just too unbearable to think about. I thought of the impact of this loss for Kristi. How would she even understand? Should I call the camp and have a counselor tell her? Was it wrong to let her have some fun before giving her the news that would cause a drastic change in her routine, and undoubtedly break her heart? Then there was the loss of my dream; to actively participate in the building of our Amish cabin. This was something my husband and I, in our younger 60’s, were excited to make a reality. The multiple layers of bereavement caused me to shift my pain from one to the other. But the most heartbreaking thought was, without question, the loss of life. The unfathomable reality, I didn’t know which of my friends died.
‘Seemed like sisters’
Angie was the first to start work with Kristi. Angie is the kind of person who has the ultimate work ethic of being on time and performing her job without direction or reminders. As a Personal Care Attendant, she knows the importance of creating a trust and respect with the clients whom she works for. Our family hit the jackpot when she joined Kristi’s team.
Another great thing about Angie was, she wanted the weekend hours.
Finding personal home-care workers is difficult. Seeing as working with Kristi was Angie’s second job, I tried very hard not to take advantage of her. She would work any of the evening hours, but we both knew that wasn’t healthy for her. The extra hours I asked of her were few and far between. I didn’t want to burn her out, and she felt appreciated.
Soon after Angie began work, she introduced the idea of me hiring her roommate and friend, Jordan. I can still see Angie laughing, “we literally live three blocks away. Three blocks.” Angie went on to say there would never be a reason someone wouldn’t be able to come for Kristi. “If anything else, we can walk here!”
Jordan started her training the next week under Angie’s guidance.
From the outside looking in, Angie and Jordan seemed like sisters. Their families shared the same house, and they helped each other with the children. Jordan had her husband and two children who lived in the household, Angie had a boyfriend and two children. They told me many stories of how their living situation helped each of their families function at an optimal level. No undue financial stress, no need to find childcare. It wasn’t unusual if one of their children had a doctor’s appointment, both Ang and Jordon would go. The non-related children called each other brother and sister, Angie and Jordan sent ‘love-you’ goodnights to all.
Over time, Jordan decided that every third weekend, overnights and all, would work best for her family. This was a perfect situation for my family, as well.
It became the norm that if Angie worked, Jordan may stop by. If Jordan was working, Angie would stay after her shift and they would have coffee.
Their children were welcome here. I often found a child sitting with their mom at the dining room table. And it was one particular weekend that Morgan, Jordan’s daughter, was visiting that a thought came to me.
“Morgan, would you be interested in working with Kristi?”
Morgan, the sweet gal she was, smiled and said in her 18-year-old innocence, “Sure?! But I’ve never done this work before?!”
And just like that, I had another awesome member of this ‘Jordang’ team on board.
One of Morgan’s first Fridays working alone, I was busy packing for the weekend. My husband and I had plans to stain and poly the cabin’s rafters and flooring. I ended up in the garage helping my husband get some things in order. When I came back indoors to say goodbye to Kristi, I found Jordan alongside Morgan. Jordan was showing her daughter how to release Kristi’s headrest.
Morgan looked surprised. “I thought you left, so I called my mom.”
I smiled. “That is so nice to have your mom so close.” I rested my hand on Jordan’s arm, “Thanks so much for coming.”
I took pause as I watched Jordan gently pull Kristi’s head forward and release the switch. I don’t think I ever put as much care into that process. It was a moment when I understood the care and love that Jordan had for Kristi.
‘These people become a part of your family’
The thing you wouldn’t know, unless you walked in shoes like mine, is what family life looks like when you have home-health providers.
Your personal life is non-existent. You are inviting strangers into your home who are privy to your family life; the good and the bad.
The plus side to having these strangers come into your home is that most times, these people become a part of your family. They don’t knock on the door; they are welcome to come right in. While providing care for my daughter, they have total access to the kitchen, bathrooms, and dining room. When a caregiver provides overnight care, they choose one of the empty second-floor bedrooms for their stay.
‘Tried to put the fire out’
I took a deep breath, knowing I had just covered a few of the many memories I shared with the families who lived in what was now the ruined house.
My husband and I were heading out of town when my cell phone lit up. It was a text message from Morgan. Her message read, My mom and sisters passed away in a house fire.
I hit the call button. Morgan answered. The cell reception was spotty, but I had no problem hearing the wracking sobs that sounded through the phone. I learned the possible cause of the accident. It was arson. Most likely started by a seven-year-old child. Angie’s son was seven.
Sometimes news hits you, and the shock of it forces you to freeze yourself in time. I saw nothing around me as I shared the news with my husband. My brain shifted into the devastating reality, my heart breaking on so many different levels.
An hour later I called Angie. I could not fathom what she was going through. Angie told me she was at work when she got the call her house was on fire. She said she took her boys and Jordan’s girls to the fireworks the night before. I’m sure there were numerous people lighting fireworks freely with lighters and matches. The beautiful night sparkling sky, the applause of the crowd, makes for a fairytale kind of experience for children.
Angie told me she knew her son started the fire, because her son told her he did. He found a lighter, and for reasons unknown, he started a lounge chair on fire. When I asked how he was doing, Angie said the only thing he repeats is, his house had a fire. And his Mommy Jordan and sisters passed away.
The child tried to put the fire out. The floor was so sopping wet that when Angie’s boyfriend, Mitch, was awakened by Angie’s 14-year-old son’s screams, he slipped and fell before trying to race toward the staircase that was already ablaze and impassable.
‘(Moving) forward as one family’
Kristi was picked up at camp the Friday after the fire. Because of her disability, and the latest onset of seizures due to unknown causes, it was hard to tell if she understood the gravity of the situation. But I can tell you this. When Jordan worked the weekend of June 26th, Kristi made Jordan text me with this message; I like Jordan and Angie’s weekends.
Angie said it was still vivid in her mind the way she yelled goodnight to the girls, only the night before the accident, saying one last, ‘love you,’ as they headed upstairs to their bedrooms.
Angie, her boyfriend and two children are currently living in a motel that someone offered to pay for until the end of July. I asked Angie recently if there was anything I could do. I asked her if there was a GoFundMe page. She said there is. When I found it, I could see that the families weren’t getting the financial support they needed.
I sent a message to Angie today, asking if I could write an essay to promote their cause. She responded, ‘Yes. That’s awesome!” Angie also went on to say that the remaining survivors will move forward as one family.
‘Be the blessing’
This is one of the saddest stories about life I’ve ever written; Duane lost his wife and two children. Morgan, who’s birth father is absent, lost her mom and two sisters. Angie, besides dealing with her traumatized child, also lost three of her best friends.
Please open your wallets and help ease the financial burden of these beautiful survivors. Your donations are not just money to these people. It’s a way for them to see love in a world that seems to be so cruel. That $10.00 you give could buy milk, bread, and eggs. That $20.00 you give could buy cookware to make a favorite meal that keeps the memory of their loved ones alive. That $100.00 you give could buy blankets, sheets, & a comforter to bring comfort when nightmares are all they see. My dream for these people is huge. I want these people to be able to obtain a home large enough to house them all. How they obtain the home, through your generosity, will be a reminder that their lives still matter, and they don’t have to go through this alone.
The one thing Duane requested of me was to include Jordan’s life’s message; Everybody you meet in life is either a blessing or a lesson. There’s a lesson in this story for all of us. Now that you’ve met the family, please be the blessing.
HOW TO HELP
Two GoFundMe pages have been created following a house fire that killed three on July 5 in Ashland, Wisconsin.
GoFundMe link for ‘Help the survivors of a devastating house fire’
GoFundMe Link for ‘Help Fund Morgan’s College Education’