ASHLAND — When I saw the fire engines, ambulances, and police cars blocking off the street three blocks from my home, I assumed it was just another fender bender at the four-way stop of Sixth Street and Beaser Avenue. 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 Sixth Street, though, 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 panic heaving in my chest. My eyes locked on the upstairs bedroom window, stained by smoke, its glass smashed.
Jordan Chowning and Angie Morales, who lived in the house, were two of my daughter’s four caregivers. They made weekend getaways possible for me. My daughter Kristi has paraplegic-like disabilities that require round-the-clock care. Kristi has long 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 OK?” I was begging for an answer.
I knew that Jordan, her husband Duane, and her children Michelle and Alyssa used the second-floor bedrooms. Angie and her boyfriend Mitch had the bedroom in the basement. Angie’s 14-year-old and 7-year-old sons slept on the main floor.
The man sadly shook his head in what appeared to be disbelief, “There are deceased.”
“No!” 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 on his cell phone who appeared to be just as dazed and confused as I was. 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 did.
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 I headed for home. Sobs wrenched my chest as I walked the three blocks.
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 11:11 a.m. When her cell phone started to ring, I whispered my plea: “Please answer. Please answer.” But there was no answer.
The next person I dialed was Angie at 11:12 a.m. I felt panic in my chest and once again chanted my prayer. The tears were returning. No answer again.
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 a.m. Another no answer.
I felt vomit curling in my stomach. It just wasn’t possible, and yet it was.
In a panic, I texted Morgan at 11:22 a.m. 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,” and “Ashland, WI,” and the hit I got was worse than anything I could have imagined. A report stated that three people had 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 plans to leave for Mora, Minnesota, the day of the fire, Monday, July 5, to pick up our builder and his family. Menno had our designer staircase built and was ready to haul and install it. Andy would drive the truck and trailer and I would drive the 12-passenger van. That’s the part about building an Amish cabin. If you want them at your jobsite, it is up to you to get them there.
With no other choice but to wait for answers, we decided to pack up the truck for our trip. The soothing sound of tires on 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 my 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 that, undoubtedly, would 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 early 60s, were excited to make 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. And there was the unfathomable reality that I didn’t know which of my friends had died.
‘Seemed like sisters’
Angie was the first to start working with Kristi. She has the ultimate work ethic: always on time and performs her job without direction or reminders. As a personal care attendant, she knows the importance of creating trust and respect with clients. 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. Recognizing that 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 said 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, and 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 child care. It wasn’t unusual, if one of their children had a doctor’s appointment, for both Ang and Jordan to 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 the “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 nonexistent. 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’
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. 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 had taken 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, and applause of the crowd can make for a fairytale kind of experience for a child.
Angie told me she knew her son started the fire, because her son told her he did. He had found a lighter, and, for reasons unknown, he had started a lounge chair on fire. When I asked how he was doing, Angie said the only thing he repeats is that 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 Angie’s boyfriend Mitch, awakened by Angie’s 14-year-old son’s screams, 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 26, 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 “good night!” 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 was. When I found it, I could see the families weren’t getting the financial support they needed.
I sent a message to Angie, asking if I could write a newspaper column to promote their cause. She responded, “Yes. That’s awesome!” Angie also went on to say that the remaining survivors would 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, whose 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; they are a way for them to see love in a world that right now seems to be so cruel. That $10 you give could buy milk, bread, and eggs. That $20 you give could buy cookware to make a favorite meal that keeps the memory of their loved ones alive. That $100 you give could buy blankets, sheets, and 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 for 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 asked of me in writing this 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.
Doris Rauschenbach is a writer in Ashland. Her website is doriswrites.com, and she can be followed at facebook.com/DorisWrites. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
HOW TO HELP
Two GoFundMe pages have been created following a house fire that killed three on July 5 in Ashland, Wisconsin.
To help the survivors: https://gofund.me/a2020eaa
To contribute to Morgan Chowning’s college fund: https://gofund.me/2383afba