It was a typical rainy November night in 2015 and Carrie and Ben Brown of Astoria were unwinding after a busy day. They had taken their son, Kai, back to college in Vancouver, Washington, after a visit. The Browns returned home around 9:00 p.m. and did all their routines, such as making lunches to prepare for the next day. Then Carrie, Ben and their daughter Kleary, then 9, went to bed.
Around midnight their two Chocolate Labs. Tullie and Leeroy, woke the family up whining and whimpering. Ben got up and let them outside thinking they needed to go bathroom. That was when he saw that the house was on fire.
“There was a lot of quick commotion, with him yelling to me to get out of the house,” Carrie recalls from that very frightening night.
Her husband hurried to get Kleary out from her bed and they all met outside the front door. By that time the smoke detectors had gone off and smoke was coming out the door. Realizing there was no time to spare, Ben headed back inside to try to save what he could. Carrie, Kleary and their dogs ran to their neighbor’s house to call 911.
Ben was able to go inside only a couple of times and save a few things including a tote with pictures that was stored under their bed and two deer heads that were mounted on the wall just inside the front door. Soon the smoke was too thick to see and dangerous to breath.
On the back side of the house, near the laundry room, he saw flames shooting out under the eaves. Popping and cracking sounds could be heard coming from the attic. The fire started to move quickly, and within minutes, the first smoke flash ignited, and it simultaneously blew most of the windows out.
“Without a doubt this must be the most helpless feeling on the Earth standing, in a cold rain in your underwear and watching your every belonging go up in smoke,” Carrie says. It is still almost too much to talk about.
The fire spread quickly, roaming through the attic and roof with flames reaching over 100 feet high. There was nothing they could do. Shortly after, the fire trucks from Astoria, Warrenton, Knappa, Lewis and Clark, and Olney/Walluski fire departments arrived, but large portions of the house were already burnt to the ground.
The home, located in the rural Lewis and Clark area, was destroyed, with everything in it. The only things left standing were outer walls near the front of the house, including a master bedroom and kitchen exterior wall. Everything was a total loss. What was not destroyed by the flames was either melted or had extreme smoke or water damage.
The Miracle Ring
The following morning revealed the charred remains of what used to be their home. Ben and Carrie tried to salvage what they could. Many items that were still intact could not be saved because they either could not be cleaned, or they felt apart due to extreme acidity from the smoke damage.
While Carrie was watching the flames destroy their belongings, there was one particular item that she kept talking about and felt overwhelmed by the loss. It was a small ring, in a picture frame that was hanging above their bed. It was there to remind her of one special night almost 15 years ago on Peter Iredale beach in Warrenton. While Ben and Carrie were watching a beautiful sunset, Ben, without her knowledge weaved the ring out of beach grass and proposed to her. This grass ring was a treasured memory of their engagement.
The frame, completely burnt black, was found by one exterior wall still standing. Assuming it had suffered the same fate as all the other framed items they had come across, Ben and Carrie scrapped the charred and broken glass out to reveal the ring almost untouched.
“The ring was framed with an air gap between the ring and the glass thus saving it from the intense heat, and miraculously it also escaped smoke and water damage,” Carrie says fighting back her tears.
Ben took the ring out of the damaged frame and aired it out for two years to help dissipate the overwhelming toxic smoke smell. He had it then reframed, and last Christmas he surprised Carrie with the gift. Carrie admits she was “a sobbing mess.”
“I love this man and I am so lucky that he loves me,” Carrie wrote on her Facebook page on Christmas day. Opening the gift was a very emotional moment. It brought back such an avalanche of emotions starting from the happiest moment when Ben proposed her on the beach to the realizations of how far they have come together.
“One thing you quickly realize after losing all is that most of it was just stuff that could be replaced with time and money,” Carrie says. “There are still things that tear one emotionally apart, when losing beloved things such as all the family heirlooms, pictures, generations of hand-me-downs that cannot in anyway to be replaced.” She grew up in a very close-knit family in Svensen and has always been very attached to all the family heirlooms.
Her children’s pictures and awards were some of the biggest losses. Kai, 20, had been very successful in sports during his high school years, and all his awards and accomplishments were destroyed. When learning about the fire, Kai wanted to come home and be close to his family. He did not return to the college after winter break that year.
Even after losing everything, the Browns are grateful that the whole family got out of the house on time. Their regular day had turned out to be the worst nightmare anyone can think of, and it left the family with only their night clothes on to face a long season of surviving and recovery.
“We received so much support and help from our families, work places, and the community,” Carrie says. “It was overwhelming how much kindness and care this community gave us. It still makes me emotional to even think about it.”
The Brown family lived for the next three months at the Hampton Inn in Astoria, and then 19 months in a fifth wheel at their property in Lewis and Clark. During those months, they started building a new home and moved in last August. There are still some finishing touches to do, but the house is starting to feel like home. The two deer heads have found a place above the living room fireplace.
The framed grass ring is again hanging above their bed. A very meaningful insight is written on the boarders, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”