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Two weeks after major fire, a family regroups
Jill Gabrielsen makes it clear she is not a hero. But she is grateful for those who were.
Just less than two weeks ago, on Wednesday, Aug. 27, Gabrielsen, a Norway pediatrician, received news that her family's home was on fire in a remote section of Norway off Norway Center Road.
Her instincts went to work. Was her 19-year-old son inside the home?
He was not.
Could the house, an old wood-frame structure and a dearth of nearby available water, be salvaged?
How do you rebuild after such a loss?
You simply do.
This past Sunday, in an interview with the Advertiser Democrat, Gabrielsen recounted those initial moments of learning about the fire, even as more than a dozen emergency firefighting vehicles barrelled their way down Main Street in Norway on their way to the fire.
She spoke of uncertainty. She spoke of strangers coming to her family's aid. She spoke of her daughter's school rising to the occasion.
Gabrielsen knew the age and the nature of the wood frame house made the blaze that much more challenging for firefighters.
But it was those visual images of a raging fire being met face to face, not only by firefighters but by her neighbors who only wanted to help, that has left the most indelible mark on Gabrielsen.
"First of all, when we got....when my daughter Eva arrived at the scene, people were so immediately kind," Gabrielsen recalled, well aware of the trailing nature of her words while discussing the fire.
She continued, explaining how her daughter's friend and her father came up to the scene, sweating from running to help in whatever way they could.
But it was the image of a young man, Walter Feeney, who had a cast on his leg and who was on crutches who navigated the steep hill to assist in any way he could.
"That just really got me," she said.
Similar episodes of humanity's best overshadowed the fire itself, Gabrielsen said. Knowing the house was a total loss paled in comparison to the generosity of both friends and strangers.
"Walter's mom is a good friend," she said. "She took off from work. There were probably a hundred people" around the house as it burned, looking to help.
She said the orchestra director at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School has already moved to get Eva a new violin, as hers was lost in the blaze.
A dentist who lives nearby brought over a box of toothpaste and tooth brushes.
Those random acts of kindness give solace to Gabrielsen, who during the early stages of the fire had no idea of the whereabouts or safety of her 19-year-old son, Eli.
"My husband (Ed) got the message (about the fire," she said. "He knew my son was alright but I didn't. I didn't know. He could have been asleep."
Gabrielsen praised the efforts of the firefighters who battled the blaze. Although no one is certain what caused the fire, Gabrielsen believes a lot of good has resulted.
"I think they did a great job," she said. "I understand there was a problem with water."
That problem emanated from the location of nearby ponds and streams, too far away to really be of assistance during such an emergency.
But it was the simple idea of her son's whereabouts where Gabrielsen receives the most reward.
"When I found out he was alive (her son) it (the fire) didn't seem like as big a thing," she said.
There were items inside the house Gabrielsen knows cannot be replaced. For example, an old bed her daughter used was given to her by Gabrielsen's mother, who bought it in Holland. Her mother's old Singer sewing machine was also lost.
"The things that mean the most are the things that have the memories," she said. "Mother's old sewing machine, the quilt i made. We're better off than so many people."
If there's a disturbing aspect to what happened, Gabrielsen says it is the large number of fires that have happened in Norway over the past several years.
Hindsight is always 20-20, and Gabrielsen admits that members of her family have grappled with the many "what ifs."
For example, she said her husband flipped on a light switch days before the fire and saw a spark. The electricity in her house and many of the area's houses is old, she added.
In the end, Gabrielsen points to a very large maple tree probably as a sign of continued life, as well as her nearby vegetable garden.
And of course, the kindness of others still resonates.
She says people have brought over gift cards, and another friend who sells produce at an area farmers' market gave her vegetables and fruits.
Stephens Memorial Hospital has also established an account through Norway Savings Bank, while several of her colleagues in pediatrics were among the first to offer assistance.
"I just think - I'm just so touched and humbled by people's response. It just shows, once again, how important community is."
REFLECTIONS— Jill Gabrielsen of Norway looks over the charred remnants of her family's home on 6 Patch Mountain Road this past Sunday. One of the few things the fire did not destroy was the old maple tree Gabrielsen is standing next to. A major fire at the home on Wednesday, Aug. 27, brought fire and emergency rescue units from 16 towns in Western Maine. Gabrielsen said the response from neighbors, colleagues and others has been overwhelming.