A schoolmate's family tragedy was one of the defining moments that propelled me, a young Fire Explorer, into a career of helping others.
Marc Kressler (not his name) was a popular kid at my school, Irvine High. He was handsome, strong, athletic and quite the class clown. Nothing seemingly could contain his indomitable spirit; that is, until the night his grandfather died in a massive fire at the large, sprawling home that Marc shared with his parents. The cause of the fire was later determined to be an electrical short on a strand of lights that ignited a dry Christmas tree.
I remember that night as if it occurred yesterday. Riding my bike home at dusk, I could hear the faint wail of sirens. As I looked west, I saw a large column of black smoke and flames shooting up into the night air. I immediately turned my bike around and sped toward the flames, with the sound of the sirens becoming louder as I approached the burning house. As I arrived at the house, another classmate of mine who lived nearby was there, and mentioned that it was Marc Kressler’s house that was on fire, and that someone was trapped inside. By now the flames had dwarfed what had always seemed to us kids to be a huge mansion. “There’s no way anyone could still be alive in there,” I thought. I saw other firefighters, comforting Marc and his family, all of them crying uncontrollably.
Within a few minutes, I ran into one of the firefighters from the fire station where I worked as an Explorer. He then told me the tragic and unbelievable details of what happened. He said that most of the family had gathered in the kitchen. The grandfather was in an upstairs bedroom reading, confined to a wheelchair. The family in the kitchen suddenly heard a popping sound coming from the living room. As they rounded the corner, they saw to their horror that the Christmas tree had become fully engulfed in flames. The flames then quickly overtook the entire living room. Marc’s father had used something to knock over the tree, in an attempt to stop the upward spread of fire. But it only seemed to make things worse, as the shag carpet exploded in flames. In what seemed like milliseconds, fire raced up the carpeted stairs toward the room where Marc’s grandfather sat in his wheelchair.
Fearing for the lives of the rest of his family, Marc’s father rushed everyone out, back through the kitchen, out a back sliding-glass door and into the backyard. Marc’s father tried valiantly to climb up to the second floor bedroom and rescue his father, who had managed to get himself to a window overlooking the backyard—but it was too late. The fire had entered what firefighters call the “flashover” stage, a simultaneous ignition of all combustible products in the house, causing an explosion that hurled Marc’s grandfather out of the second-floor window, landing onto patio furniture below. His body was burned beyond recognition.
I never saw Marc Kressler again at school. But the tragic events of that night, and hearing how it happened, became seared into my memory. It explains why I’m so vigilant (my kids would say paranoid) about holiday and Christmas tree safety; and perhaps I am a little paranoid. But if you get nothing else from this story, I hope you’ll learn that, according to the National Fire Protection Association, one-third of home Christmas tree fires is caused by electrical problems. A heat source too close to a tree causes one in every five house fires.
Don’t be victims, like the Kressler family. Please review the pamphlets and video that I’ve attached with this article. Have a safe and enjoyable holiday season, and see you in the New Year.
And remember: If you stay ready, you’ll never have to get ready!