York builds dream home from ashes of holiday fire

The+remainders+of+the+York+family+home+have+now+been+torn+down+and+the+contractors+are+ready+to+start+the+rebuilding+process.+

courtesy of Mary Jo York

The remainders of the York family home have now been torn down and the contractors are ready to start the rebuilding process.

By Yesenia Montenegro, Linganore High School

Mary Jo York, retired special education teacher and current clerical assistant, is building her dream home–an exact replica of the one that burned in a Christmas nightmare. On December 25, 2019, York experienced a life-changing event that most people can’t imagine. 

It had been a regular Christmas morning for her and her family, but, while everyone was out of the house, one of her dogs knocked over a candle in the living room, and the house caught on fire. Luckily, all five people and three dogs were safe, but most of her belongings and the house were damaged or completely destroyed. The fire burned a hole into the roof of the house and the floor of the basement. Between 30 and 40 fire vehicles responded, with a total of about 80 firefighters. All of December 25th, York was a headline in the local news. 

Backdraft 

One of the scariest moments happened to Ed York,  York’s husband. He had been in the garage when the fire started. When he saw the flames, without thinking, he ran outside to open the front door, but this was extremely dangerous. 

Backdraft can occur during a fire when a window or a door is opened, because a rush of air is suddenly brought to an area where there is almost no oxygen. This can lead to an explosive burning and is very dangerous. 

Firefighters are trained to look for signs of backdraft and try to avoid it. Ed York was not injured, but because he was not aware that something like this could happen, he put himself in a deadly position. 

While there had been mostly smoke before, once he opened the door, it instantly became huge flames. He immediately slammed the door, but there was so much pressure in the closed room that the pressure blew out the windows and the front door. 

Situations like this are luckily not very common for most people, but when it does happen, many people don’t know how to react or what to do. 

The Big Clean-up 

After the fire, York had to go through her house to find items that were salvageable and safe to use. What she didn’t expect was that almost every item in the house, from clothes to dishes, is toxic because it is still covered in smoke, even if it’s invisible.    

Even bottles that were standing in a cabinet and were all sealed have smoke inside of them. When the temperature in a house increases to high temperatures very quickly, smoke particles can travel through plastic and glass. 

“The glass that got broken or blown out turned purple, not because there is something on it, but because the smoke got pushed into the glass,” said York. 

The insurance company said that anything that was in the house that she thought she could use is actually toxic. Even items that appear undamaged have smoke trapped inside. Fabrics also have to be cleaned very carefully. They cannot be washed in the owner’s personal washing machine. Insurance companies send clothes and blankets to special cleaners, where a multi-step process restores the fabrics. 

Saving the Memories 

While most of York’s belongings were not salvageable, she was able to keep a few treasures. Around 80% of her photographs are still recognizable, and firefighters saved a few of her photo albums as well. Her wedding album made it, but, unfortunately, her baby photo albums are gone. 

We all walked out, and all the dogs got out. Everything else is just stuff. Even if it means something, it’s just stuff. I still have the memories in my head. They can’t take that away.”

— Mary Jo York

Another hard loss for York was her DVD collection. She had over 200 DVDs, which melted and fused together because of the heat from the fire. Most of her furniture is gone. 

York is currently doing inventory of her entire house. She has to submit a list of every single item that was in her house during the fire, so that the insurance company can replace them. 

Items will be replaced at the value they had at the time of the fire. Anything that York buys new will be covered by insurance, even if it costs more than the item’s original value. York praised her insurance company State Farm

York is still able to see the positive in this situation, even after losing everything. 

“We all walked out, and all the dogs got out. Everything else is just stuff. Even if it means something, it’s just stuff. I still have the memories in my head. They can’t take that away,” said York. 

Unfortunately, a lot of family heirlooms were lost in the fire. York’s family was the caretaker of her husband’s family history. Most of the living room furniture came from his great-grandmother and his great-aunt, and they had over 100 paintings of his grandfather. Some paintings could be saved, but York’s favorites were lost.  

“Even though we’re going to get money for those belongings and because they’re antique, the replacement value will be about the same as its original value, that’s not great-grandma’s coffee table,” said York.

Her husband feels like he let his family down because he was meant to be the keeper of his history. 

Rebuilding the Identical House 

York and her family own a 35-acre farm in Mt. Airy and had lived in the house since December 2005. Her mother also has a house on the property, which is where the York family is currently living. Because this is where her children have grown up, York decided that she wanted to rebuild the exact same house in the exact same location. The only problem is that the original builders of the house, the Bernard Brothers, are retired. 

When the Bernard Brothers heard what had happened, they immediately offered to build the house for York, despite their retirement. The brothers are already in their 60s, but are still determined to work as much as they need to in order to complete the house. 

Larry Bernard has been retired from building for about 10 years. He is currently still doing some electrical work, and had his building license renewed. 

“I’ve been through a fire that was at my own home in 1986, so I know how it feels. I know how it feels to lose everything. No one knows how it feels until they go through it, which is why I wanted to help,” said Bernard.

The Bernard Brothers are constructing the house exactly as it was before. However, some adjustments need to be made because the style of brick that was originally used was discontinued. Some safety codes have changed as well, but the house will look almost exactly the same. 

The process of reconstructing the house has already started. After demolition, the foundation will be scrubbed with dry ice. The York family expects to be in their home by Christmas 2020. 

Psychological Effects 

When he saw the fire, York’s husband attempted to call 911. It took him several tries because, in the excitement of the moment, he could not remember how to unlock his phone or what number to call. He was in shock and it was terrifying. 

“You think 911 would be such an easy number to call. He knew that he needed to call 911, but he couldn’t remember what number to call,” said York.

Even though the fire happened weeks ago, York still thinks about it daily. She doesn’t get as emotional, but it remains on her mind. 

“I don’t mind people asking me about it. Some days, especially in the beginning, when a lot of people were asking me every day, and I had to keep talking about it over and over again, I couldn’t get a break from it. One day it got so bad that I had to go home because I was shaking and I just couldn’t function,” said York.

Bringing the Community Together 

While tragic events like this are horrible, they do have the power to bring the community together. As soon as neighbors and members of the community found out about the fire, they offered assistance. 

York spent the first night after the fire in a trailer outside her house because she didn’t want to leave the site. After all the chaos of the day, York realized that they had not had anything to eat. When they opened the door to the trailer, someone had brought them food, without a note or any sign of who had sent it. 

Everyone who knows York wanted to help, whether they were colleagues, friends or neighbors. The Red Cross brought enough water for everyone at the site and made sure that everyone was taken care of. 

Takeaways 

When we are taught about fire safety, we are always told to ‘get low.’ Everyone knows that if there was ever an emergency, you should get on the floor and crawl to an exit. This tragedy has shown York just how much you really need to ‘get low.’ 

“You need to get down to one foot from the floor. You need to be breathing the air off of the floor because that’s the coolest and cleanest air there is. You need to belly crawl out,” said York. 

It is important to understand the importance of learning fire safety and take it seriously. Knowing what to do in an emergency situation could save your life.   

This story was originally published on The Lance on March 10, 2020.