I am so choked up. My husband has been a Cle Elum fireman for 25 years and has never experienced such a horrific fire call especially when it is people you have known. Please say a prayer for the families, friends and our community.
Cle Elum, Roslyn rallying around families who lost children
CLE ELUM — Cars slow down and stop as they pass the house. Drivers take in the charred siding, the shattered windows, the lonely looking tire swing resting on the lawn.
And in front of the house on West Third Street, where two little boys died in a brutal fire last week, sits a makeshift memorial, a cluster of bouquets, balloons and teddy bears left by community members and strangers who wish they could do more to help. One little stuffed dog looks care-worn, as if its owner chose a much-beloved toy to give.
The family of one little boy drove from Seattle to Cle Elum so he could leave a teddy bear in memory of Skyler and Hunter. Their mother, Noel Wood, suffered burns that were not considered life-threatening.
“Everybody’s just kind of in a state of shock,” said Jason Woodward, who lives a few doors away with his own children. He was at the house Monday afternoon to slide a board under the memorial to keep it up off the wet ground. “It’s the most horrible thing that could happen to a person, losing a child. I can’t even imagine ... All our hearts go out to them.”
Last week was devastating for the small communities of Cle Elum and nearby Roslyn, which together comprise about 2,700 residents. On Wednesday, 7-year-old Clayton Everley of Roslyn suffocated when a sandpit he was playing in collapsed on him.
Then, the house fire Friday killed two boys under the age of 5 after firefighters were forced out of the structure by the intense flames and toxic smoke.
“Tragedies like this don’t happen very often,” said Dave Campbell, fire chief for the city of Cle Elum Fire Department and incident commander at Friday’s scene. “This is the largest fire fatality we’ve had in probably 40 years.”
Fire investigators have yet to release a cause for the fire, which quickly engulfed the two-story houseshortly after noon Friday. But Campbell said one of the reasons the blaze might have grown so quickly and ferociously is that many old houses in the area are full of coal dust from the days when coal was mined in the area and coal-burning stoves were common.
The house had also been remodeled several times, leaving empty spaces in the walls and between floors and ceilings, where fire can flourish.
When Campbell arrived, the back half of the house was engulfed but flames were not yet shooting out of every window, so fire personnel made several attempts to enter the house and extract the boys.
“We tried to go in all kinds of places in that house, and the heat and the smoke was too bad,” he said.
Even before he got there, he said, police officers, Washington State Patrol troopers, Kittitas County sheriff’s deputies, off-duty medics and several others had already arrived and tried to stage a rescue.
Kittitas County Fire District 7 Chief Russ Hobbs said he’s been a firefighter for 38 years and had never seen anything like it.
“I’ve seen individuals risk their lives, pull somebody out of a car or something, but I’ve never seen that many people selflessly risk their life under, obviously, the worst possible conditions,” he said. “Prior to our arrival, there were people doing amazing things.”
When firefighters got there, they even had civilians helping to pull fire hoses. A large crowd of neighbors turned out, bringing water, coffee, blankets and anything else they could think of to help.
It was Campbell who had to make the call to stop sending firefighters into the structure when it became too dangerous. That was the hardest part: “It just went quiet,” he said. “I knew that my decision would seal the fate of those children,” though, in truth, he knew their fate had already been determined.
The incident may cost Fire District 7 some of its crucial volunteers. “I think I’ll lose a couple firefighters,” Hobbs said. “I think it was too overwhelming for them to think about it possibly happening again.”
Since the fire, Campbell and Hobbs said, they’ve been actively reaching out to all their volunteers to help them with the grief. Both of them still get choked up, but say it’s critical to show their feelings.
“Sometimes, guys are especially bad about addressing their feelings. That’s why it’s really important for Dave and I to be willing to say yes, we’re affected by this, and it’s normal for you to be affected by this,” Hobbs said. “It’s OK to grieve; it’s OK to grieve for people who even you don’t know closely.”
Churches around town are helping the community cope. The Rev. Worth Wilson at Cle Elum Community Church said his congregation is collecting clothes and household items for the couple whose houseburned down, while Cle Elum Alliance Church is holding a community prayer from noon to 1 p.m. today. A donation account has also been started at Cashmere Bank.
In such a small town, Wilson said, everybody is connected somehow to the families who lost children. Several of Clayton Everley’s friends were in church Sunday with their parents.
“I don’t think you ever know what to do when you lose, especially, (three) young boys like this. It’s just a matter of coming together and supporting one another, talking with one another,” Wilson said. “The strength in the small town is that people are already rallying to support (the families).”
At the Cle Elum/Roslyn Elementary School, where Clayton attended, school counselors are meeting with kids who need to talk, and helping parents find the right way to address the subject with their children.
A memorial service for Clayton will begin at 4 p.m. Friday at the school, followed by a balloon release and then a potluck, said principal Matt Chase. They’re expecting around a thousand people, as Clayton’s motocross biking community will also turn out in support. A fifth-grade class also started a penny drive for kids to donate their spare change to go toward any costs the Everley family is facing.
Obviously, Chase said, students and staff are “devastated, and taking it hard.”
But, he said, “This is a really tightknit community. And one of the many beautiful things about this community is that when times are tough, people rally. They’re rallying around the families right now, and will continue to rally into the future around these families and support them.”
Neighbor Woodward echoed those sentiments as he finished propping up the memorial in front of the smoldering house.
“The family should know that people in the neighborhood have their backs 100 percent,” he said. “Everyone wants to do as much as they can.”