Three burned dollars a priceless gift

By Michelle Pittman | Published Saturday, November 9, 2013

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In the early morning hours of Saturday, Nov. 2, my fire department pager went off for a structure fire in our area. I headed to the station to meet up with two other firefighters, and we proceeded to the fire.

My adrenaline always races as the sirens scream and lights flash, heading toward a scene. In my mind, I went over a mental checklist of my gear and what I needed to do as soon as we arrive.

When we arrived, the fire and smoke were billowing out. Huddled in blankets to keep warm, the occupants of the home were all out safely before we arrived. I pulled the fire hose off the truck and toward the house as our fire chief began truck operations.

On this particular night, we were the first fire department to arrive. My partner and I made entry into the house to begin our fire attack and were able to stop the fire within a few minutes. As a two-female team in a typically male-dominated field, we felt great about stopping it so quickly. Unfortunately, the rollover fire and smoke damaged the entire house.

We spent four hours in the cold November night air finishing up. During the mop-up stage, as I sifted through the charred remains of the family home, I was able to find the husband’s wallet, a birth certificate, some family photographs and the family Bible. My partner and I were also able to save six of their seven fish out of a fish tank full of debris.

In my mind I thought, ‘what would I want if this had been my house?’ The homeowners were so thankful. With a smile and laugh, the husband told me his house was a fix-it-up house before, and now it really was a fix-it-up house. Even in the face of losing his home, he was so thankful and appreciative.

I always wonder after a call like that if there was something more I could have done to help people like this, who lose so much in front of your eyes. It was a very humbling scene to watch it unfold. As we were about to leave, the homeowners hugged and thanked us. All you can say to them at a moment like that is how sorry you are.

I got home around 5 a.m. and tried to get a few hours of sleep before working the fire department boot drive that morning. Our department uses fundraisers like the boot drive to raise a third of its budget.

I was tired from lack of sleep and the physical exertion of fighting the structure fire, yet I smiled and waved at everyone who drove by. Some stopped briefly to donate money in the boot I was holding. A few hours after we started our drive, a truck pulled up and stopped beside me. It was the husband and wife from the fire I had fought a few hours earlier.

I asked them how they were holding up. They both smiled and said OK. Then the husband pulled out the wallet I had found in the charred debris of his home and took out three burned $1 bills to put in my boot.

Three burned dollars for the first three firefighters to show up. For a moment I did not know what to say. Finally, the only thing I could say was “thank you.”

Imagine losing your home and nearly everything in it a few hours earlier and still taking out what may be the last few dollars you have to give to others!

Sometimes I have wondered if the people in my town really appreciate the time and effort it takes to serve on the fire department. Do they realize the self-sacrificing of the volunteers and their families? Does anyone really even care that we are there in a time of need?

That Saturday morning I found an answer in the most unexpected way. Those three burned dollars are now seared into my memory. And I know that yes, good people are still out there, and it was a privilege to help those people.

Michelle Pittman
Firefighter/ First Responder
Rhome Fire Department

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