Ezra Bennett woke in the middle of the night because something in the air had changed. He’s sensitive to this sort of thing, he said. The hall light should have been off, but it was on, so he got out of bed. The light switch didn’t work, so he tried a different one.
That didn’t work, either.
Bennett looked out a west-facing window, he recalled, and saw the glow of fire from his home reflected in his neighbor’s window.
“It had to have been going for a while,” he said. “It was fully engulfed.”
Bennett and his partner, Melissa LaTour, four kids and two pets escaped the November 7 house fire without injury — and in some cases without shoes. More than two weeks later, the house is considered a total loss, and the couple still doesn't know what belongings are gone forever.
Meanwhile, Bennett has begun waking up at 2 a.m. every morning, has a new-found sensitivity to the smell of fire, and keeps revisiting the details in his mind.
“It took me a week to deconstruct and reconstruct what happened,” he said. “I go over the little bitty details: When did I notice this? When did I notice that?”
It was a normal night. LaTour folded clothes, put them away, and they were all in bed by 11 p.m. She said she woke up to Bennett yelling “Fire!” and then saw a wild look on his face. She couldn’t immediately tell that anything was wrong with the house, she said. Then: “I looked up at the attic door,” she said. “You could see the glow around it, the orange glow. The paint was turning brown.”
LaTour went to the girls' room, Bennett to the boys' room.
Diggo, a 3-year-old terrier, made it out unscathed; Pixie, the 14-year-old tabby that was still asleep in a chair, was scooped up along with the humans.
“As I turned to look at the house, there were 15-foot flames coming off the back end,” LaTour recalled. “We got halfway to the neighbors and heard timbers crash from the roof.”
Tamara Jones, the children's mother, had recently moved to Minneapolis. She and her partner were in the car and headed to Duluth within minutes of connecting with Bennett. It was tricky to piece together the story from the ruffled people involved, and rightly so, Jones recalled, but eventually, a neighbor took the phone and laid it out:
“Everybody was safe, and they were warm, and they were in the neighbor’s house,” Jones said.
Bennett and Jones had moved together into the house more than a decade ago. After their relationship ended and he began dating LaTour, he moved into LaTour’s apartment about five blocks away — a place cutely referred to as Tiny Dwelling.
When Jones moved to Minneapolis, the couple moved out of Tiny Dwelling and into the house. There were still boxes to be unpacked and cans of fresh paint by the door.
While it looks intact from the outside, it smells faintly of fire even from the yard. Inside, beams remain but much of the roof is gone. Getting upstairs took two attempts for Bennett and LaTour. It was too much the first time. The shower is by the toilet; beds are upturned. Here and there, things that were untouched by the fire: a makeup bag, strings of lights in the girls' room, a framed poster in the boys room, a copy of Growler magazine in the couple's room.
LaTour noted that she had lost a Duran Duran tour jacket from 1984. It was covered with 300 pins and had a backstage pass in the pocket. During a recent visit, Bennett wore a head lamp and shoveled into the debris in the hallway. His 11-year-old son wanted the hidden treasure box he had left behind.
LaTour pointed out the darkest parts of the ceiling, where it had been the hottest. Near the bunk beds in the boys' room, the outside of the girls' room.
It’s that kind of fact that puts the loss, originally estimated at $75,000 by the Duluth Fire Department, into perspective.
“The stuff doesn’t matter,” LaTour said.
“It’s just possessions,” Bennett said.
The three youngest children were planning to move to Minneapolis to live with their mom in December. They ended up going home with Jones after the fire, speeding up the plan.
They recently started at a new school.
Bennett, his oldest daughter, Hazel, 13, and LaTour are living with LaTour’s mother. He’s trying to trust all of the things that are happening outside of his control.
“I’m pretty numb,” he said. “I don’t really know how to put emotion on it. I’m more concerned with making sure everybody is safe, and their needs are met.”
Both LaTour and Bennett have taken comfort in working — and discomfort in relying on other people’s help.
Friends and acquaintances and darn-near strangers have donated clothes, time and money.
Jones’ friend Annie Harala found shoes for two of the kids, who had run out into the night without them. Back in Minneapolis, her new neighbors supplied them with clothing. LaTour said she received a big check from someone her father knows, but whom he hadn’t talked to in years. Bennett had a similar experience.
LaTour's adult daughter started a GoFundMe campaign that had, as of Tuesday night, nearly hit its $10,000 goal.
Within the music community, where LaTour has spent much of her life, the response was immediate.
Local artists have committed to playing the day-long Fire Relief Benefit show, organized by Scott Lillo and others, on Dec. 8 at Caddyshack. The lineup includes Woodblind, Adam Herman, Ingeborg von Agassiz, Black-eyed Snakes, Big Wave Dave & The Ripples and more.
“Everybody has been incredible,” Bennett said. “I’ve always made my own way. Never once have I had to rely on that type of assistance. It’s a bit of a head trip to have to sit back and go, OK.”
If you go
What: Fire Relief Benefit for Ezra Bennett, Melissa LaTour and Family, silent auction, etc.
When: Noon Dec. 8
Where: The Caddy Shack Indoor Golf & Pub, 2023 W. Superior St.
Online fundraiser: GoFundMe