At least three times, someone has burned down a derelict building in one of the bad neighborhoods– always one scheduled for demolition, always so efficiently that the building is a tornado of black smoke and flame before anybody notices it’s caught fire. Houses next door are scorched, half a block has to be evacuated for smoke, we’re all exposed to burning asbestos and our clothes and hair smell like charcoal for a week. Up til now, nobody’s been hurt. But there’s always the fear that the local fire bug will mistake the address, and burn down a house with people in it. In the poor neighborhoods, it’s not always clear which houses are occupied– we can’t afford to make our houses looked lived in from the outside.
I’m not sure that the arsonist is responsible for this last fire, Sunday night, but he could be. No one is sure what happened. The fire martial says there might not be enough left of the house to know for sure. Locals who witnessed the fire are sure it was another arson– they say you could smell the gasoline from several blocks away. They say it looked like it “blew up” rather than burned. But the fire was so bad a car on the street went up with the house. Power lines fell onto it, so the fire fighters couldn’t even use a hose to put it out; they had to evacuate nearby houses and let it burn. Maybe that was what the neighbors smelled. We’ll likely never know.
What we know for sure that when the firefighters got there, a man was running away from the house, crying “My kids are in there!”
That man was lifeflighted to Pittsburgh to the burn center– burns all over both hands, witnesses said. A woman, her six-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son and the family dog burned alive. Neighbors said that they found the remains of the children still in bed. It happened that fast.
I found this out from the bus driver on Monday, on my way to the library. She knew the children personally; she’d driven them on the bus since the little girl was a baby. She said she was trying to find a way to raise money for the funeral, even though the bus driver’s union had rules against giving money to a charity that wasn’t a nonprofit.
“I just, you know, I hope that they died in their sleep,” she said.
Yesterday, they were still talking about it; that’s how I found out who the father was.
“He’s gonna live with this the rest of his life,” she said. “I’m so sorry for him. He’s the nicest guy. Loved those kids so much; he picked up the little boy at school every day, so he’d never need a school bus. You’d know him if you saw him. He’s got a beard, kind of scruffy looking, always talking; so generous, he’d give you his last dollar. He had one of those neighborhood cab services when he could get his car working.”Somehow I didn’t blurt out “Saint Christopher!”
I asked more questions about his appearance, and it was him. Everyone on the bus knew him by name. None of the times I’d spoken with him, had he given his real name. He was Saint Christopher or The Man With The Cab to me. But his name is Terry Richardson. His partner was named Debbie Shope-Freedman and the children were Terry Robertson, Junior, and Amber Shope. You can donate to the funeral fund here. Any funds exceeding the cost of the funeral will go to Terry’s medical expenses. Please keep them in your prayers.
I don’t understand how the world works.
I don’t know which is worse: that the universe is so fallen a mother and two children could burn alive from a tragic accident, or that the human soul is so fallen that someone could have deliberately set that fire. But one of those things has happened.
Here in the Valley of Shadow, amid the smoke and despair that hell sends up every day, you can meet generous souls who would carry your suitcase and give you your last dollar; souls who risk trench foot to help a friend, and who know that children need to play outside and make noise. You can find Saint Christopher on any given day. You can also find the fires of hell. So it is in the rest of the world, I assume. Grace and hell. angels and demons locked in combat, everywhere you look.
I believe that, by the transforming power of the Cross, everything is grace, but I can’t see grace in this. I can’t stop thinking about the hands that rescued me and carried my suitcase two years ago; those dirty scruffy hands that were always fixing cars and repairing houses; that those same hands are in a hospital in Pittsburgh riddled with burns. There are too many fires in the Ohio Valley. The smoke has my soul stumbling blind. I know the grace is present, but this time all I can see is hell.
Lord, have mercy. Christ who descended into hell for our sins and came back victorious, remain with us who are still in the valley of death. Lord, wake up. Have mercy.
Thank God that Grace is one of those things that exists, even when you can’t see.