Your house is on fire:you can save only one thing, what would it be?

Sometimes a question on the internet, brings back deep memories, like: “imagine your house is on fire what would you save.”  I don’t have to imagine that. I have been there, done that, I had no t-shirts left.

Holiday 1991, my parents go on holiday, leaving their 19 year old son at home for the first time. During the day I work at the Playground for kids in Lochristi. (Speelplein werking ) During the nights I go out at the “Gentse Fieste“.

One of the last nights just before a concert I wondered, if I had left a cooker on in the (brand new) kitchen. My friends urged me to go home. I refused. If it was true, the house would be gone (It was 3 hours after I left the house),if it wasn’t,I would miss a great concert. Both ways my evening would be ruined. I stayed. We talked a little more about it, and I forget about. Until I went home. I was afraid to turn the corner. When I did, a great relieve, the house was still there.

A few days later, I had a small car-accident in Lochristi.  Until today I am still convinced I was in my right (someone was trying to pass me on a crossroad while I was going left).
The policeman made it very clear he did not like “long hairy do-nothings”. This 19 year old did not took the time to rectify the lies the policemen wrote down (I was foolishly thinking I could do that later) I did not want to be late to take care of the kids(For free during my holiday.) (So much for a do-nothing)

I could not reach my parents. When I father saw the message asking them to call me, his first reaction was: “We should call home, great the house is still there…) That was 29 july 1991. (Remember this is pre-cell phones) My father reached me that same evening and he tells me they are moving to another camping, actually moving to my favorite camp place.



Just as last year I would not live home to study. (My father thinks it is a great thing for students to live on their own.) I could go to my place from the 1 of august. I did not have the keys yet, and St Amandsberg is closer to Lochristi as Gent. At my parents home, in my room I had everything packed to move.
On thursday 1 august 1991, there was a Games night for the leaders of the playground.
I put the new cd player of my parents in the car. Thinking, if something happens (to the car/me/the house) they will find out.  I put a lot of my records and cd’s also in the car and I take out my guitar and put it back in our house.

I put on a cassette from Derek & The DirtLove’s exaltation at full volume.
I did not know our new neighbours moved in that day  …

I go to the kitchen and make some french fries. After ten days of eating out in Gent;  French fries, with an entrecote, tomatoes and my famous tomatoes sauce will be much healthier. The normal way of making French fries is not possible. The electric equipment is broken, it is not safe anymore. My parents will buy a new one after their holiday. So I have to do it the old way: using oil that I put on the kitchen stove. I find it very dangerous, it is the first time I do it, if it would not have been for 10 days of very unhealthy food I would not have done  it.

I put on the fries and go get a shirt upstairs.

I have no idea how long I was upstairs but when I come downstairs the kitchen is on fire.

I run to the car parked in front of the house and take out the fire-extensor.  It does not work. (Later I am told by the fire men it could have exploded in my face. It was still one year valid).
I run outside again , run the bell of several neighbors, I see people standing in front of the butcher, I scream to them please call the fire brigade. They reply, you can do this inside… I run over, say the same message inside the butcher shop and ran back.

I turn of the electricity. Dereks shuts up. The silence is heavy. As if without music, I only now feel alone and realize what is happening.
I want to turn of the gas. Mmm I have to go down in the cellar, nah, I won’t do that..
I put my sisters and brothers dog in the garden, to do this I normally have to pass the kitchen, now I climbed through the window in between the living and the veranda.

I go outside and wait for the fire brigade. Five minutes can be very long. I go to the old lady living next door and call my girlfriend.(We are talking pre-cell phone times) Her parents who have never seen me yet, don’t believe her, at first she is not allowed to come. I call the boyfriend of my sister, a good friend of me. He drives crazy to our place and the only thing he did was shout at me. So far for the support I badly needed. (It should not be a surprise that I haven’t spoken to that person for the last 15 years.)
I try to reach another friend, who’s parents are at the same camp place my parents are now. He does not know the number. My sisters boyfriend tells me, my sister will call him later that night, he insists that I will pick up the phone as he does not want to tell her. It would have been something I would have proposed, the way he forces me, is not what a friend should do.

I call the playgournd telling them I won’t make it. The person answering the phone his first reaction is laughing as he does not believe me after the “Gentse Feesten” story of the week before. His voice quickly changes as he realizes I am serious.
During the extinguishing of the fire, I ‘m aggressively put behind the protection tape (by the police) I tell the policemen it is my house, he does not listen. Some ten minutes later I repeat it, now he gets mad that I did not report this earlier. yes I stayed out, with an open shirt, without shoes just for my pleasure.

So they take me inside the combi. The first time I tell my story I tell it to strange policemen for the record. It took me a few years to realize this is not the supporting place a 19 year old person needs. (My so called friend had never asked me what happened. ) I don’t remember when my girlfriend arrives, I think it’s while I am in the combi.

When I am brought to the combi I see that our dogs are inside another combi. I never saw that happen. Later when I get them into my car I smell they have pissed all over the place.

Driving to my sisters boyfriends parents home is crazy, the dogs are all exited, and they want to be as close to me as possible, like close to my pedals. It starts to rain cats and dogs.

I ‘m the persons picking up the phone when my sister calls her boyfriend and I ask her to go get my parents. And bring some paper. She freaks out as I don’t want to tell her why.

I have to repeat a few times to my father their house is gone. I urge them not to drive home that same night, it does not make sense. That is the house is still there, only you can not live in it. My father is glad that the house is closed by my key. That way burglars will not enter and steal the few/only valuable things left. I actually tell my father to stay another week on holiday, there is nothing here anyway. I have to smile when I write this now, how on earth did I even think they would consider that? My practical mind had taken over, emotions were very far away. I was in survival mode, it’s a safe guess to say I was in the Denial stage of the grieve model from Küblar-Rosss.

After that I went to the playground where I did my story. My best friend was there, she did not believe the others when they told her what happened to me, when she saw me entering she knew it was true. I asked for a pack of cigarettes and for the first time in my life I smoked a complete package.
A lot of friends offer me a place to sleep. I refuse and I ask if I can sleep at the playground. I want a place to be alone. (Not sure why, I think the experience of my previous friend, made me distrust people)

The next day the police comes to find me, I get escorted back to my parents house. The fire restarted that night. Luckily the neighbors saw it quickly. Those new neighbors, their house also had some fire damage: their walls started to burn from the heat. Luckily for them they still had all the invoices from their work. When I come in my street I see a fire car with a boat. (!) (Strange what I seem to remember). This time they had to break our house open. Later we discover my father was right. Some nice things where stolen.

I am at my aunts house with the whole family when my parents come home. The first five minutes my parents just hugged me and we cried together. Something that did not happen a lot the previous years (My parents had a hard time with this 19 year old.)I now realize this great start, was one of the reasons why I saw the fire for a long time as the best thing that happened to me.


Why was it so good:

  • My parents never accused me of something
  • the fire got our little family a lot closer.
  • I saw the difference of real friends and fake friends.
    • Some of my parents long time friends just dropped them like that.
    • The neighbors of colleague of my mother gave us a brand new television.
    • Some people in the youthclub Lodejo found it funny to remind me about the fire every time they ate french fries.
    • Students of my mother that graduated the year before came to help multiple weekends the next year to clean the house up.
    • >> a lot of examples how weak networking links, are a great help. Probably the start of me trusting my network.
  • I learned to ask for help
  • I realized later if I can see this as a positive thing (which I did at that time) I knew I would survive everything
  • I became a different persons after this.

As I had a haircut a few days before the fire, a lot of people think I lost my long hair because of the fire. I wanted to surprise my girlfriend coming back from holiday.

Normally I would stop working at the playground after that week, I keep working as I need something to keep my head from spinning. I am very happy the other leaders and kids allowed me to continue working.

Last year someone told me something about the project I was leading :

Yves, panic’s when small things go wrong and stays calm when really bad things happen. Just what our team needs. 

Yes I stayed very calm during the fire. I was already a good crisis manager at 19. No wonder I used this story the first 10 years in every job interview I had.
If this story moves you, like it has moved so many people before.
Know, that you can’t do anything anymore, for the 19 year old version of me.
Please pay it forward and help anyone in a crises situation when you see it.

What can you do:

– Listen to their story. Don’t judge, listen.
– Hug them.
– Give them something that brings them back day-to-day life. The best gift I personally received were toiletries ( a comb, toothbrush, towel etc etc)
– Ask what they need. (they might not know (like I did not know I needed a toothbrush), but when they do, it’s better then received 5 times the same thing. (like we did)

Thank you for reading.

Oh and about the saving? For a long time, my answer was, I did not save anything. I now know that was wrong. I save the dogs. And myself.
What do I regret having lost? Pictures and letters. (After +20 years I still have a smelly box full of letters, that is too emotional to throw away)

Everythings else, that’s just stuff.