Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Toledo Fire: Ten Years Out Of The Ashes

For those of you who have received this year's version of my annual Christmas CD, this picture may look familiar. For those of you who didn't receive it, have I got a story to tell you!

Ten years ago - December 6, 1996 - a date which will live in inflammatory. My then-fiance-now-wife and I were suddenly attacked as a result of a basement fire in my apartment building in Toledo, Ohio.


Ann was a fledgling medical student from Indiana who had come to Chicago to attend medical school. I was working for CD Exchange, a used CD store chain in the Chicago area. Ann would come into the store periodically to sell compact discs for money when her student loans ran out. Before I left that job for the Suncoast Motion Picture Company as an assistant manager in 1994, I had asked Ann out on a date. She said yes and the rest was history.

A year later, we were engaged and Ann received her medical degree. Her training took her to the metro Detroit area and I remained in Chicago to gain some more experience in management. I wanted to transfer to a store closer to Ann but the company's cheap ways would pay for the move if you were a full fledged store manager.

Another year passed. Our relationship was still long distance and not gaining the momentum we both wanted. The strain was beginning to show in the summer of 1996 when my big break came; a store had opened in the Detroit district. The only catch was that it was located in Toledo, Ohio - 1.5 hours south of where Ann had settled in Auburn Hills. Realizing this was a "take it or leave it" offer in more ways than one, I accepted the promotion.


The move was a complicated affair due to several problems; no furnishings of my own, the moving coordinator wanted the move done yesterday and as cheap as possible, and thanks to our schedules, Ann and I only had two days to locate an apartment in Toledo, sign the rental contract, and be ready to move in five days later!.

We found an older apartment complex named Southbridge Square Apartments in Toledo. It was about two minutes from the store in Southwyck Mall that I was preparing to manage. The monthly rent was reasonable, it paid for seven basic cable channels, and nearby amenities were within walking distance.

As I lugged heavy boxes up and down the stairs on the day of the move, I began to meet and greet some of the other residents in the building. The average age of my building was around 74. So much for hanging around the pool.

I began my official duties as a store manager on August 1, 1996. Instead of being four hours away from Ann in Chicago, I was 1.5 hours away south of her in Toledo. As I began exploring Toledo, I discovered it wasn't Chicago by any stretch of the imagination.

I was craving Chicago style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, a good burrito. I missed the local used bookshops, the record stores that had everything, all the specialty stores in those Chicago neighborhoods I knew so well. I needed a newspaper that didn't just print Associated Press reports verbatim. I could only follow my beloved Chicago Cubs on the radio (good clear nights only).

Toledo shut down after 11 PM everywhere, had a great zoo (more on that later), and very little else. The people of Toledo were friendly but most of the discontented ones found their way into Southwyck Mall (and eventually the store I managed). They did a quick lap, hitting each store, openly grumbling about their situation, their lots in life, and let everyone within hearing distance know about it.

There was always a buzz around the town that Chrysler would close down their aging local plant - built in 1910 but still cranking out Jeeps. Local union members were so militant that they would strike on a whim or weld the doors shut on Jeeps on the assembly line to protest over the years.

Everyone complained and wanted to pass the buck. I kept searching for roses amongst the thorns and kept getting stuck. When your hometown hero is Jamie Farr, you know Toledo's got problems.


The inside of my apartment after the fire.
Smoke left soot everywhere; note the "It's A Wonderful Life" poster.

I began decorating my apartment with my extensive movie memorabilia collection. "Reservoir Dogs" UK subway posters, Beatles "Anthology" standees, replica movie posters of Frank Capra films, vintage movie stills from hundreds of classic films. I had been collecting and carrying this stuff around for ages and I finally had a place to display it.

A collection of movie and political buttons hung on the wall. Rare promo posters from Star Wars, Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock. My Christmas CD collection (which numbered around 50 CDs) was displayed alphabetically above the 1000+ VHS tapes I had bought or received over my lifetime. Vintage LIFE magazines were left on the coffee table to read. Hundreds of books (some from my childhood) were placed on shelves around the apartment.

My bedroom was a part-time storage area for most of this memorabilia when I began decorating. By the time the apartment was presentable to the public, 1/2 of my memorabilia still remained in my bedroom. I was preparing for Ann's first visit to the apartment so I hauled select furniture pieces, stereo speakers, boxes of summer clothes, and knick-knacks I didn't want to display down to my storage area in the basement of the apartment building.

In early November, 1996 (shortly before the busy Christmas shopping season began), I decided to invite some of my co-workers to the apartment for pizza, chips, and Pepsi (B.Y.O.B). I didn't want them to tread the path to the bed past boxes and piles of clothes to lay their coats on. Some things stayed (my collection of Kennedy assassination newspapers, my album collection), some things went (my entire baseball card collection). For the first time since I moved in, my bedroom had a floor.

My co-workers were floored from the moment they stepped inside. They simply gawked and marvelled at the treasures I had on display. What was to be a two hour party lasted for four and a half hours as they kept finding new stuff that I forgot I had. It was one of the better nights that I spent in Toledo.


On Friday, December 6th, my day began by working the morning shift at the store. For good reason too. On this night, Ann was planning to travel down from Auburn Hills for a visit to the Toledo Zoo's annual "Lights Before Christmas". Despite being that much closer to each other, Ann and I had rarely seen each other thanks to our conflicting schedules. We were still in a long distance relationship and some doubts were being raised.

We weren't sure we'd make it into 1997. Now was the time to tread lightly.

At the end of my shift, Ann came by the store and we left for a quiet dinner. We talked about many things - she was dealing not only with smarmy patients but smug doctors who loved giving interns a hard time. I was coping with new trainees and a management staff that didn't get along too well when I wasn't around. We talked about our families, plans for Christmas, and upcoming schedules.

Looking back on it, I never complimented her on how radiant she looked that night or how happy I was to see her after a prolonged absence. Darn that hindsight.

After dinner, we travelled over to the zoo. The night was clear, cold, and brisk. We walked the grounds of the zoo, looking at Christmas lights in the shapes of primates, giraffes, and other zoo creatures. We watched families of all shapes and sizes take in the whole spectacle and pose for pictures. We saw sleep-robbed elephants in their concrete bunker home as hundreds of visitors came in for a brief break out of the cold.

Before we knew it, we made a whole circuit and reached the exit/entrance. Our night was ending.

Or so we thought.


As we made our way out of the parking lot, I began to think about my Christmas tapes. I was in the process of recording them and was way behind in getting them out. Ann was heading back to Auburn Hills tonight and this gave me a three or four hour window to get some work done. In ways, I wanted her to go more than I wanted to stay (Hindsight: what the heck was I thinking?).

We reached the parking lot of my apartment building around 9 PM. Ann had some things she had purchased earlier in the day up in my apartment and wanted to use the restroom before the trip back. I found my key and opened the front door.

A whoosh of warm air hit us as we entered into the foyer of the building. We began walking up the steps when we both heard a dull, piercing alarm. We both looked at each other as if to say "what is that?". At the top of the stairs, we turned down the hall to my apartment and as we entered, we heard yet another alarm. Ann was already inside as I stood in my doorway wondering about those alarms I never heard before.

"I'm going to check this out" I told Ann. I walked back to the top of the stairway and peered over the railing. I was greeted with a current of white smoke (think the death plague in "The Ten Commandments") heading towards me.

I then heard a stunned but calm voice that didn't yell but simply said "Fire!".

I raced back into the apartment: "ANN, WE GOT A FIRE!"

"CALL 911!" was her response.

As I reached for the phone, I yelled at her "RUN UP AND DOWN THE HALL AND KNOCK ON DOORS!" and I stuck my head out into the hallway and yelled at the top of my lungs "FIRE!"

My loud bellow (and those who know me know that I can bellow) caused an instant flurry of doors opening, footsteps running in every direction, and people shrieking in terror. By this time, smoke and its accompanying heat was pouring upward from below and dancing through the halls.

I dialed 9-1-1 and waited for the operator to come onto the line. I heard Ann's voice yell something but I couldn't make out what she had said thanks to the fire alarms that were now blaring throughout the building.

"9-1-1 Emergency."

"We've got a fire at Southbridge Square Apartments at 1255 South Byrne Rd!" I urgently told the operator.

Wait a minute, where WAS Ann?

"Okay, we got fire engines alerted... what apartment did you sa..." Her voice faded out as I heard the fire burn the phone lines out.

At that same moment, the fire burned through electrical lines to the building causing the lights throughout the building to fade quickly, then out completely. The only remaining lights were the emergency lights in the hallways.

When the lights went out and I heard the operator get fried, I became frightened for the first time in this whole chain of events you just read. The total time between the moment we walked into the building and this very moment was around 90 seconds.



The smoke began to get toxic black and the heat was growing more and more intense. I last remembered she was in the hallway. I went through the open door to my apartment and made the decision to leave it open. If Ann was at the other end of the hallway and tried to make her way back, she could get in.

I dropped to my hands and knees and began screaming loudly and wildly for Ann. I had crawled to the end of the hallway on my side of the building and reached the wall. She wasn't passed out on the hallway floor so I stood up. Big mistake. The moment the smoke met my eyes and lungs I was gasping for air. I dropped back down and crawled back to my apartment.

Ann wasn't anywhere to be found. I began to panic.

Still gasping from the smoke and sweating thanks to the heat, I went out onto my balcony. My eyes cleared, I breathed better, and went back into the hallway once more. I continued my yelling of "ANNIE!" at the top of my lungs in hopes she was alive or could hear me. The smoke knocked me flat again and I had to retreat to my patio balcony.

The smoke was making its procession from the hallway across my living room ceiling, over my head on the balcony, and into the Toledo night air. The balcony faced out onto a huge courtyard connecting five or six other buildings. Why not one of those buildings, I thought to myself. I knew I couldn't risk entering the hallway further.

I sunk to my knees and began crying and shaking. The only thing I could do was to yell Ann's name into my apartment and hope the sound traveled into the hallway. I wanted her to walk or crawl or stagger her way back to me. The image I had in my mind was she was lying in a hallway or an apartment dead. I yelled and yelled and yelled.

"KNOCK OFF THE YELLING!" I heard a voice yell. It seems a neighbor heard my voice carry across the courtyard and took umbrage. Only in Toledo.


I ignored my ignorant neighbor and kept yelling Ann's name over and over on the balcony. By this time, other people were coming out of their apartments and gathering in the courtyard. Several people began running to the front of the building to spot flames, others just stood and gawked.

Ten minutes had passed since we first walked into the apartment. It felt like ten years. Off in the distance, I heard fire engine sirens over the cackle of old ladies and staring bystanders.

"Buddy, you need to get down from there" called one person.

"Climb onto the edge and lower yourself down. We'll get you down..." another voice reasoned.

When I moved in, I had learned that the height to all the balconies on the apartment were standard at 10 feet. Thanks to a slope in the earth directly under my balcony, it was around 15 feet. I had nothing else to lose so I climbed over the edge and hung to the rail while I moved my feet off the balcony.

I began to slide down the railing a little further when I felt a hand grab my left ankle, then right. I slid down further, they got better grips, and I let go of the railing and felt gravity pull me down into the arms of strangers, then terra firma.

I didn't bother to say thanks or ask their names (hindsight: to those three men who helped me down, wherever you are, my eternal thanks).


I began running to the front of the building. By this time, police units were on the scene and the first fire engines were arriving. More people were standing and staring and I pushed my way through them to get to the entrance of my building.

The parking lot was full of tenants - watching, scrambling for their cars to escape the cold, or helping elderly tenants slowly walk across the icy parking lot. Smoke was pouring out from vents, opened patio doors, or broken windows. There was movement everywhere. I began screaming again for Ann.


The voice had come from above. I looked toward a balcony where an old lady stood with blanket around her. Next to her was Ann. She was alive. We both felt the wave of relief simultaneously and burst into tears. The old lady was comforting Ann now as I heard her say "See? I told you he was alright".

However, both Ann and the lady were still stuck on a balcony. I ran immediately to a police officer who was helping to clear the parking lot so a fire engine could move in. I asked him if a hook and ladder was coming because we had people trapped on balconies. He assured me there was one coming.

I ran back to Ann and told her the ladder was coming.

"Where did you go?" I asked up.

"I went to the end of the hallway and knocked on [the old lady's] door. She was startled and I chose to stay with her. Didn't you hear me?"

In the understatement of the night, I told her "there was a lot going on" and I didn't hear her.

The Toledo Fire Department finally arrived. After sweeping the building for other tenants, they determined the only people left near or around the building were Ann and her charge on the balcony - no immediate danger and hook and ladder would pick them up shortly. Firefighters began trekking downstairs into the basement where the fire raged.

Police had blocked off Byrne Road on both sides of our apartment complex to allow the fire engines access to our building. As I waited for the hook and ladder to show up, I noticed a line of cars that were trying to sneak into our complex via a side entrance by a trash dumpster.

One car got into the lot and drove right into the teeth of the confusion, stopped, killed his engine, and waited. It was also directly in the spot where the hook and ladder would no doubt need to be placed. I ran to the car and asked the driver what he was doing.

"I'm trying to get around the fire engines and back onto Byrne Rd." he stated matter of factly.

"Buddy, the hook and ladder is arriving soon and you're parked in his spot! Back up and get out of the way!" I yelled at the guy. He started his car and tried to back up. The only problem was three other cars were attempting to do the same thing the first was. I ran to the final car in the string and told him to back up and out of the lot.

"Why?" the driver asked.

At this point, my temper which needed an outlet for all the things that had just occurred found one. In a voice louder than when I was screaming Ann's name, I told this guy (in so many words, some profane) the following points: 1.) there was a fire 2.) my fiancee was trapped on a balcony 3.) he was blocking the area 4.) if he didn't move, I'd would throw him and his car into the fire.

After a disgusted look, he did what was asked and I went to the car directly in front of him. "Sorry, sorry, sorry" was all she said as she quickly reversed back and out of the lot.

The next car wasn't moving so I tapped on their window and told him to clear out for the fire engine. "Look, all I want to do is get through up there and out onto the street..." he pleaded with me. There's got to be a full moon out, I thought to myself.

"Go ahead... you'll bump into two police cars and a fire engine blocking the entrance. Be my guest!" I told the motorist. "NOW BACK UP AND GET THE [EXPLETIVE DELETED] OUT OF HERE!" He quickly complied. The car that tried to pull through first finally opened the spot up for the hook and ladder - arriving immediately after he had cleared the spot.

The ladder was in place and slowly extending its arm to Ann. As it reached out and stopped, I looked back to where all the cars were trying to sneak through. Two more cars were in lined up, ready to cut through again but staying back realizing there were fire engines present. They weren't in the way so I didn't mind.

Ann helped the old lady into the basket first, then she climbed aboard. The ladder began inching slowly back and in a few moments, both were back on the ground. Ann ran from the basket and found me in the parking lot.

The hug and tears lasted for nearly a full five minutes. She felt good and safe in my arms.

After we separated, I looked at her; she at me. It was at this point (my wife now concedes) that all of her fears, worries, or questions about our relationship went up in smoke - please forgive the horrible pun.


While the fire department was putting out the fire, the apartment complex manager finally arrived. She and several other office assistants began telling people to head to the office / community room to get out of the cold and (in her words) "to figure out what to do next".

We made our way into the room and indeed it was warm. They began making coffee and gathering names and corresponding apartment numbers. As people began settling, rumors were all around. It was arson, it was the faulty wiring, it was a blocked dryer vent in the laundry room in the basement.

The older people were especially shaken. This was their only home for the past twenty years (some people even more than that). A good majority of their worldly possessions were all left in their apartment and were in danger of being destroyed or damaged.

Ann gravitated to the elderly. It was magical to watch her deal with them - alleviating their fears, listening to their concerns, and assuring them all would work out. I was completely in awe and thought to myself how amazing she was. As she left the side of one senior to help another, I walked up to Ann and told her exactly that. I wasn't going to hold back anymore in this relationship. Ann was rather pleased.

Finally, the apartment manager spoke. There was something about her that made her looked odd. Perhaps she was tired and that's why she looked so haggard. Perhaps she was overwhelmed with everything that was now on her plate thanks to the fire.

However, when she spoke and slurred, you knew why. She was not falling down drunk, just out there. It was astonishing. This was the woman who was going to help all these people get back on their feet?

In essence, she told us that replacement apartments would be available in the next few days for all displaced. In the meantime, you were on your own. To those who wanted to call families, the phones in the office were available to call.

While the majority of the people had family close-by to assist them, there were two parties that didn't and had no place to go. One was myself, the other were a pair of sisters well into their 80s whose closest family was several states away.

We approached the apartment manager about the possibility of hotel fare for one or two nights not just for us but for the ladies.

"We're not allowed to do that... Maybe the Red Cross?" she blithely responded with a half drunk stare. We were indeed on our own. Ann walked up to the sisters and told them we were going to a hotel and invited them along since they had no place to go (isn't she incredible?).

We walked back to the apartment building with the ladies. By this time, the fire was extinguished and the police and fire departments began their preliminary investigations. We asked a firefighter if it was safe to enter our apartments to gather some possessions to take to the hotel. He said yes and asked two firefighters to accompany us for safekeeping.

As Ann helped the sisters, I made my way back to the apartment to gather my stuff, a firefighter walking behind me. I got to the open apartment door and noticed the initial damage. The heat had melted anything plastic in the place (window blinds, shower curtain liners, etc) and my apartment was darkly covered with layers of soot on everything.

I closed the patio balcony door, picked up my stuff, and closed the door behind me (hindsight: if I had done that before, it would have saved me $10,000 in damages). I walked back down and thanked the firefighter.

"Before I leave, tell me. What started the fire?" I asked. In words I'll never forget:

"A short in a wire in the breaker box started it up. This one was burning for a while."


A picture of me the day after standing by the entrance to the basement.
Compare the color of the walls to the interior photo of my apartment above.

The sunlight poured into the hotel window and awoke us on Saturday, December 7th. We headed back to the apartment and was greeted with an eerie, quiet calmness with a smell like a campfire. The parking lot was mostly empty as we headed to the office with the elderly sisters in tow.

The apartment manager wasn't present but a representative of the company who owned the complex was. She was ready to assist as best she could. She asked us to avoid the basement because building inspectors were examining the damage.

The sisters were waiting for their family to arrive today and they would do that in the community room. We said goodbye to the ladies who thanked and hugged us for all the care we had paid to them. It was the only bright spot of the whole ordeal.

With camera in hand, we headed back to the apartment and snapped several pictures of the damage. As natural light fought its way into the soot covered windows and patio doors, I got the first real look of the aftermath.

Everything was covered with soot. On the sides, underneath, inside, you name it. I moved to the table area in my living room where I was recording my annual Christmas tapes.

If you notice on the desk, only one CD was destroyed - a copy of Rhino Records "Christmas Classics". As for everything else, it was going to take a whole lot of cleaning and fire restoration to help out.

TVs, VCRs, phones, and the electronic equipment shown in the photo were unusuable and needed cleaning. Clothes, furniture, and rugs trapped the smoke and smell inside their fabrics. My memorablilia was stained and damaged to the point where it was unrecognizable. We began slowly wrapping everything that could be saved into garbage bags (books, posters, etc). Everything else needed to be thrown out.

We arranged for a fire restoration service to come out and shoot the works to the stuff they could clean, not necessarily save. They recommended a place in town that had treated sponges that would get the soot off the memorabilia. Ann's mother drove from Fort Wayne to Toledo and began helping us clean, restore, repair, or pitch.

I hadn't gone to the basement yet but couldn't avoid it further. Ann and I went downstairs and saw the charcoal stained hallways that led to the basement stairwell. As we looked at the damage around the door, it had occurred to me that the fire started almost immediately right after we entered the building the night before.

Hindsight: it's probable that when we did enter the building that night, it caused the pressure to change in the lobby and hallways, causing the fire that had smouldered in the basement to spread to the first floor.

We walked down the charred stairs and entered the basement. The only color beside the string of emergency lights strung from the ceilings was black. The fire didn't miss anything. We walked slowly to where my storage area was in the basement. We arrived at the area and saw complete devastation.

I look at these pictures ten years after and the flood of memories still well up.
It was utterly heartbreaking. I was grateful that Ann and I were alive but it doesn't compensate when you see things you've collected or owned literally in ashes right before your face.

I began looking for the source of the fire when I was greeted by a building inspector. He asked us to leave because they were still investigating the determinate cause of the fire. We headed back to the apartment and continued to clean and toss items.

Towards the end of the day, the fire restoration team arrived. We loaded their van full of furniture, electronics, and other items they would try to restore. As they sped into the night, I headed back into the basement to review my losses down there.

What I saw next deeply disturbed me. A firefighter and a building inspector were reaching into my storage area, picking up baseball cards and looking at them. Like schoolkids busted when the teacher turns around, they noticed me and quickly dropped the cards, faking about their business.

I snapped some pictures and found the origin of the fire - a crusted out breaker box located in the corner of the basement. I witnessed the scorch marks that travelled upward from the box to the ceiling where it spread across the ceiling to the storage areas where it worked down into them. If the storage areas hadn't been there, the fire would have burnt through the ground floor and into the apartments above.

"Hey," a voice called. I turned to find the building inspector who was looking at Dwight Evans' batting average on one of my baseball cards.
"You need to leave now."

Why? You gonna look at more of my baseball cards?" I
sarcastically / mildly in anger asked.

"Maybe. But you still need to go."

Only in Toledo.


Sunday, December 8th began with all sorts of arrangements: a new apartment was selected, work arrangements were set in place, and after the final cleanup of the old apartment was taken care of, we would have to clear the basement of my destroyed possessions.

The parking lot was full of U-Hauls, pickup trucks, and people moving things from one place to another. People were constantly talking to each other. What's the latest news? What caused the fire? Where did Mrs. Jenkins move to? The Vianello's are moving out to Perrysburg?

One of the most interesting tidbits of gossip facts I learned that day was about the company that owned the apartments. This company owned several apartment complexes in the Toledo area and were known for their cheap with a buck ways. The company kept everything clean and barely up to code. And believe it or not, this wasn't their first apartment fire.

They experienced a fire several years earlier that killed several University of Toledo students in an apartment building they managed and had to pay out handsomely.

I never learned the name of this company or took the time to search out the exact details. I'm hoping one day to do so. If anyone in the Toledo area or a staffer on The Toledo Blade would fill in the details for me, I would greatly appreciate it.

Another side item was the tipsy apartment manager no longer held her position at the complex. Either she was reassigned to another complex, was fired in wake of her appearance that night, or resigned because she didn't want to deal with the aftermath. Good riddance.

More stuff was thrown out from my apartment. I made endless trips that day down the stairs to the overflowing dumpster, each one just a little more heartbreaking than the next. By mid-afternoon, a team of workers hired for the day appeared and began moving my remaining belongings into my new apartment in the complex.

We began clearing out the storage area. As I took several loads went from the basement into the dumpster, Ann bravely bagged my ruins for me, knowing I would be too emotional to do so. She bagged copies of the Chicago newspapers documenting the Chicago Cubs playoff runs of 1984, the Chicago Bears Super Bowl victory editions, and all those baseball cards. I was too numb from the pain to even care anymore.

When I returned from one dumpster run, I came downstairs and saw that another team of workers were in the basement, helping other tenants clear their possessions. They noticed us bagging up our stuff and offered to help carry stuff up to the dumpster, no questions asked. Suddenly we were out of a job. They moved in, picked up everything, and took it out.

Ann walked to the stairwell leading up. Not wanting to be separated again, I went with her. "Where did the fire start?" she asked.

I led her to the end of the basement where 24 hours before, I saw the blackened remains of a breaker box. What I saw next was so out of place, I had to rub my eyes to believe it (just like in the movies). A completely new breaker box, complete with all new wiring and factory labels, was installed in its place! The new metal box just didn't glisten in comparison against the fire charred concrete walls of the basement, it glowed.

They got rid of the evidence and they're going to cover it up, I thought.

On cue, a building inspector appeared and told us we didn't belong down here and needed to leave.

Hindsight: The apartment complex had officially concluded several days later (and the fire reports back them up they claim) that a fire had broken out or was set directly BELOW the breaker box and was not the result of faulty wiring - clearing them of any responsibility or liability.

Granted, this conclusion was based on what other tenants had told me at the time but surely fire reports don't lie like that. One day I'll find the truth and put the whole thing to rest.


We walked out of the apartment building that changed our lives forever. I said goodbye to Ann's mother (hindsight: she was a big help during those dark days and still is - thank you Margie) and watched her leave.

Ann couldn't afford to take anymore time off work and was needed back at the hospital. In a span of two harrowing days, we survived a fire, went through so much heartbreak and renewal, and discovered we couldn't bear the idea of being separated. I didn't want to let her go. Ever.

We hugged for a long time in the parking lot outside of 1255 South Byrne Road. After an even longer kiss, I watched her buckle up and head back to Michigan.

I went to my new apartment where the boxed up possessions gave the apartment a strange funk smell. I had no furniture yet, no phone service, no television to watch, no food in the refrigerator, no clean clothes.

For the second time in Toledo, it was back to square one. Everything fell into place in short order. I maxed out a credit card to get a new wardrobe that night and the furniture and electronics arrived from the restoration service the next day. As expected, none of the clean electronics were in working order.

By the one week anniversary of the fire, it had seemed like none of it had happened. The Christmas season was in full swing and the store I managed was working like a fine tuned machine. My training had paid off and the employees were finally understanding all the new things I had taught them to do. It was the first time that the Toledo Suncoast store was in capable hands, according to one store official.

I didn't do much to the new apartment - I never had time. Most of the possessions were still boxed up and there was no way in hell that I was going to be moving them to the new storage area. I got a television from a local Goodwill store, the new mattress that replaced the waterbed was on the floor, and the furniture still remained unmoved in the living room.

I started getting phone calls from longtime friends asking "where the Christmas tapes were?" Postponed. When they heard the reason why, they relented. In the 22 years I've created my annual Christmas compilations, it was the only year that a tape never got completed. Somewhere deep in my basement (in a fireproof box) is a bag of Christmas tapes that were never shipped that year.

Ten years later, I can still rub along the cases of one of those cassettes and a fine soot will greet my thumb. Every now and then, I will find a CD case, a knick-knack, a book, something that has that fine soot. It's uncanny and a little unnerving when I find such an item.

After the Christmas season ended, I began unpacking my items from the boxes, determined to give Toledo a new start in the new year of 1997. Two months later, I had unpacked my last box of items when I received a phone call from my district manager: the store manager of the Waterford, Michigan had resigned (or was fired - never found out the full story). Knowing that Ann was only 10 minutes away in Auburn Hills, the district manager was offering me that store to manage.

I quickly accepted, repacked as fast as I could, got the U-Haul rented and loaded in an instant, and left Toledo in a New York minute.


It's hard to believe how much that fire changed my life. Like certain dates of the year and the seismic shifts the events of that day caused (November 22nd, 1963, September 11th, 2001), December 6th, 1996 was a turning point for my life.

It made me realize how much I needed Ann in my life. It made me lose important pieces of my childhood and early adult life, only to be replaced by new pieces of my new life with Ann, my children, and my post-fire adult life. It reinforced the blessings of the Christmas season and how important I try to keep those blessings alive through my daily interactions with people.

It also made me realize how fortunate I am that I don't accept life as it comes. I don't just walk through this life but I try to live life to its fullest. Living in Toledo for six months gave me a keen awareness of this fact.

To be fair, I've been back to the Toledo area since that fateful night. My family and I made a stop at the Toledo Zoo coming back from visiting Greenfield Village in Michigan two summers ago. Downtown Toledo looked clean and sprawling, a new downtown ballpark exists where the Toledo Mud Hens play (Jamie Farr greets you on the Jumbotron at the beginning of each game), the old Chrysler plant was replaced by a sprawling new complex, and the Zoo looks better than ever.

We drove past the old apartment building and mall for old time sake. They looked in sad, horrible shape. And it was just only 14 months ago that a race riot occurred in Toledo that made worldwide news. What the future of the city hold, only time will tell. I sincerely hope the people of Toledo revitalizes the city and themselves.


To all those longtime readers of the blog (I think there's about two), thank you for reading this far and I hope this story didn't bore you to death.

To all my family and friends who may be looking in for the first time, thank you for taking the time to visit. I hope you enjoyed this retelling of a story I've told you many times over, I hope you'll explore the rest of the yuleblog, and I hope you have enjoyed listening to this years edition of my annual Christmas CD.

To my wife Ann who was at my side, then got separated in the fire, and then was at my side to stay. Thank you for making this last decade since that night so memorable. I still feel that hug we share after we reunited in the parking lot. 1-4-3.

This is my longest yuleblog entry to date, possibly ever. I've rambled enough...

aka Capt


cathrina said...

the blog was lengthy..but i enjoyed reading it.. come over to my blog with ur wife and lets make this christmas more merrier..

Jeff said...

An amazing story Rob. I still don't understand why no one's paying you yet for your writing though...

PDMan said...

What a heartbreaking, yet inspiring, story. We've had our home burglarized but nothing like this.

Erick Monsterama2000 said...

Your story had me riveted in my chair. Thanks for sharing and Merry Christmas!


CaptainOT said...

Thanks to all who responded to this story here at the yuleblog.

I've spent much of the day today on the phone or replying to e-mails from family and friends concerning this event of my life.

I'm glad you didn't find it boring!


Mark said...

As a native Toledoan, I have to say you're being a bit hard on the city. It's gotten better. Then again, I'm writing this from Los Angeles, where I've lived since 1992.

And I've been to that Suncoast! Apparently the Southwyck Mall and the entire are are going to be renovated with a big sprawling development. The mayors of the city deserve a horsewhipping for letting the South End of the city turn into a sprawl of abandoned stores and junky apartments (I think I have a good idea where yours was-- it's right down from the Ken's Flower Shop... my dad is Ken).

Thanks for all the great music on the blog!

Jonathan said...

With the telling of the night that changed your life, I've received your annual CD with a whole new perspective, Rob! Likewise, your blog will take on a deeper meaning, as I understand the passion of your endeavors! My best to you, Ann, and the children this Christmas Season!

You have definitely turned a curse into a blessing. Good for you!

To add to what Jeff said, why don't you write a book?

in Alabama