Squirrels Nest Lane Structure Fire….Nine Years Later

Last night as I prepared to fall asleep I recalled exactly the moments of the same night 9 years ago. I woke up at 5 am to leave my house at 6 for work. That morning was different. I woke up feeling sick to my stomach and worried about something, but I didn’t know what it was. I got my shower and left for my 48 hr tour. A few minutes into my drive I started feeling worse; I knew something was terribly wrong! After about 30 minutes I called the firehouse. Bill Keif answered the phone, shaken to his core. All I heard him say was, “Kellie we need you here…..there’s been a Mayday.”

That day my life took a dramatic shift. I no longer saw myself as an independent person within the fire service. I saw myself as a united body, with many feelings, emotions, journeys; like we were all connected around one common but extremely painful moment. 

As I pulled into the parking lot, the bay doors were all open and the bays were empty. Even the pickup truck was gone; the station wiped clean. The only thing I recall seeing was the station shoes of the guys who left to respond to the fire.

The crew was silent. All of them sitting around the radio in the alarm room. Not a tear, not a word, nothing, just silence. Blank stares covered their faces; this was the look of tragedy.  I recall having similar feelings as I did on 9-11, but this time, tragedy hit home. 

It must have been hours later when I realized I had forgotten to remove my phone Silent mode. When I looked at it, I had missed several calls from family and friends; the voicemails shook me again to my core. All I recall hearing were messages like these:

“Kellie, are you ok?”

“Can you please call me if you get this message?”

“Kellie, please call one of your sisters!”

“Kellie, please let us know it wasn’t you!”

“Kellie….I love you…..please be OK…..”

That’s when I realized the news reported that a “woman” made the mayday call and died in the early morning fire, along with another male firefighter. 

The feelings of great sadness changed from feeling for Robin and Brian, to feeling for their mothers and fathers, for Robin’s girls, whom my daughter had grown up playing and vacationing with. What about them?  I couldn’t help but wonder if Arlene had called Robin’s phone and left her similar messages. I felt so confused, so angry, so unsure of how to process things.

That day I ended up working on the squad. We were understandably equipment and staffing deficient. I recall being asked to “keep busy”, probably as a distraction. I responded into the home of an elderly man who was really sick; all he could do was apologize for dialing 9-1-1, and all I could think about was how lucky he was to bury his parents before they could bury him. The loss of a child quickly overcame me that day. 

Everyday for the last 9 years I think about Arlene. I think about how difficult the loss of a daughter must be. My daughter is going to be 20 in just a few months and the immense love that I have for her is something I can’t express in words. I’m certain Arlene feels that way.

Some of you know my struggle with being an empath. I’ve written on it before and I’ve shared some of the intuitive gifts I have. I’ve learned how to control it, somewhat, over the years, but the death of my friends in such a horrific way is something that even with training and counseling, is extremely difficult to process. It has been a daily struggle to not feel emotionally destroyed inside when I think about days like today, or Robin’s birthday coming up later this month, or the birthdays of her daughters, or the love of her life. When important dates cross my calendar, I don’t just have memories or moments of sadness, I feel the pain of their loved ones. Perhaps that’s the most difficult. 

To me, Robin was a leader and a friend. She was really the only true friend and confidant I felt I had at work, perhaps because she too was a woman and mostly we talked about the guys. We were similar in many ways and shared many of the same experiences. She and I went way back. We were hired on as the first full time women firefighters at Colerain, along with Lisa Marie. That was such a great day!! 

Then I remember being told we had to work different unit days because they wanted to put one of us on each day. We were all bummed because we wanted to work together. No worries though, it all worked out. I spent about an hour with Robin every morning as she was getting off work and I was just arriving. We’d chat about the day she’d had and about Madison and her girls. The only time this didn’t happen is when she was stationed at a different station. We were strong for each other and when Lisa blew out her knee and wasn’t able to return to work, we knew we had to stick together and have each other’s backs. The men we worked with were wonderful, but having another woman in your corner really meant the world to both of us.  After her death, I felt alone, isolated. 

I recall feeling a tremendous amount of loss that day. It was extremely selfish on my part, but it was real. Things changed around the firehouse. A few weeks later I was stationed at 102, the same station Robin had worked her last shift at. I remember being moved to headquarters shortly after arriving. Frank visited me and told me to pack my bags. I knew he was protecting me, and him. It was just too soon, and just too hard. It was the silent moments when I realized we weren’t just colleagues, we were family.
Today, in my own, small way I will honor Robin and Brian. For their sacrifice of life, which doesn’t at all seem fair or even understandable. I’ll continue to work on me and how I internalize and process moments of great tragedy. And, I’ll continue to send positive and loving thoughts towards Arlene and the girls and towards Brian’s loved ones. I’ll remember those I worked with who “stepped up” and loved us all though the difficult times that presented that week and continued over the next month, year, and years.

Thank you Robin for having such a profound impact on my life and for sharing your girls with me; I do miss you all!

Brian, thank you for being teachable early on in your career. You were fun to get to know and I’m sad I only had you in my life for a short time.


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