Washington woman finds purpose year after deadly fire took husband, son

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WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Rhodes lay in the emergency room of the PenBay Medical Center in Rockport with burns on her forehead and shoulder and the feeling that her scalp was on fire.

When one of the technicians working in the trauma room leaned in to tell her she was cutting away her nightgown, Rhodes said only this: “This is all I have. I’ve lost everything. 

Hours earlier, on Jan. 23, 2017, her husband Steven had died trying to save their son, who was born with Down syndrome, from a fire at their home in the Knox County town of Washington.

She lost them both, leaving her with their two adult daughters.

In the year since the fire, Rhodes said she has asked God why she lived.

“Only by the grace of God am I still here,” she said in an interview. “The state fire marshal told my daughter that not even a minute more being in that smoke and I would have been the third fatality.”

In the year since the death of her husband and son, Rhodes has struggled. The funeral for Steven and Isaac was held on the Saturday following the fire, and more than 700 people packed the gymnasium at the South Liberty Baptist Church.

They were people who knew Steven and Elizabeth from church or from where they worked. They knew Isaac from Medomak High School or from Mobius, an organization in Damariscotta that provides services for people with disabilities.

The following Saturday, a pig roast fundraiser was held for the Rhodes family at the Thompson Community Center in Union. That event and an online crowd-sourced fundraiser helped raise money to defray funeral and medical expenses.

Washington Fire Chief Phil Meunier said he’s never seen anything like it.

“The line of people wrapped around three times inside the building,” he said.

On the day of the fire, Elizabeth Rhodes was flown by helicopter from PenBay Medical Center to Maine Medical Center in Portland for treatment. In addition to the burn on her head, she also had a serious burn on her shoulder and suffered from breathing in smoke. A year later, her voice is still raspy, and she struggles to reach the high notes as a soprano when she sings.

Not all the injuries are physical. On many nights, she said, she has nightmares about the fire.

After she was released from Maine Medical Center, she went to stay in Rockland with her brother, who was with the fire department there.

The sound of a siren from a passing police car or fire engine or the sight of flames in his pellet stove would trigger flashbacks or panic attacks.

FAMILY OF FAITH

For more than 30 years, Steven and Elizabeth Rhodes lived in the house they built on Cattle Pound Road in this small Knox County town, just up the road from the home where Steven’s parents live and not far from Washington Pond.

In many ways, Steven was the answer to Elizabeth’s prayers. She had asked God for a good, Christian man, and she said Steven was that man. They had met as teenagers, and at one point Steven told her she was the one he would marry.

After they married in 1981, Steven started building their home on a wooded lot. They lived in the cellar first.

“Steven was a mason, so he built it,” Rhodes, 57, said.

First, Rachel was born. But with a second child, Rebekah, on the way, she said she gave Steven a nine-month ultimatum to get the rest of the house done.

He didn’t make it, but not long after the growing family moved into their completed home.

By the time their son, Isaac, arrived several years later, they were settled in and building their lives.

Steven worked for Hunt Brothers for a while and then Bath Iron Works. When he developed neck problems, he went to work for Storer’s Lumber in Waldoboro.

Elizabeth had worked for the town office and had been head of elections; she also worked for the school district and briefly at PenBay before she was diagnosed with an aneurysm. In, around and through all of that flowed their faith in God and their involvement with their church, South Liberty Baptist Church. Steven was a boys’ coach at the South Liberty Baptist Academy.

Eventually, Rebekah and Rachel married. Rebekah and her family live in Camden; Rachel and her family stayed close to home. Isaac, who was born with Down syndrome 10 weeks early, underwent open heart surgery shortly after his birth. Down syndrome is a genetic abnormality that causes developmental delays and medical conditions.

Isaac graduated from Medomak High School and remained at home with his parents.

After the deadly fire, Rhodes found she couldn’t stay alone, turning down a chance to house-sit this past summer. Rachel and her family stayed with her.

Nothing could be salvaged from the family’s home following the fire, although family members found a Bible and copies of some sermons that Steven had given years before at the church.

“That was God giving something back,” she said.

They never found her rings, although they looked desperately. Instead, she had a family ring made up with stones that represent the members of her family, and she wears it on her left ring finger, she said, because that finger is connected directly to the heart.

Initially, Rhodes said she vowed she would not return to the Washington property, but she changed her mind. Even though the house was gone, it was where her daughters grew up, and where her grandchildren have come to play.

Rebuilding and dealing with the line of equity that Steven had taken out was complicated by the fact that all the family’s paper work and records were lost in the fire.

When she ran from the burning house in her nightgown, she wasn’t even wearing slippers.

DAY OF THE FIRE

On that cold blustery January day, a Monday, Rhodes had settled back to bed with some toast and tea.

She had not been feeling well on Sunday and had slept most of the day. She was up early, more than an hour before sunrise. She took a shower and started breakfast and lunch for her husband, who was 53, before he was due to leave for his job at Storer Lumber down in Waldoboro.

Rhodes had just settled under the blankets again, when an explosion rocked the house.

“It was just like you see on TV when there’s an earthquake,” she said. “I never experienced that before.”

While Rhodes said she doesn’t remember everything that followed, she recalls going to the cellar door to find out what happened.

Steven called up that the wood stove had blown back at him. When she went down to see, she saw embers had ignited some papers. “I didn’t even stop to see if he was burned,” she said.

She filled a brown pitcher with water to help put out the fire, and called her daughter Rachel who was living with her family in the home’s addition and next door to alert them to the fire before calling 911.

The 911 dispatcher told her to get everyone one out of the house.

The fire was already spreading fast, and when she handed a fire extinguisher to her husband in the cellar, all she could see was Steven’s hand.

Rhodes said she was torn between tossing the guns and ammunition out the window or grabbing her husband’s wallet, but she went after her son, when she saw he had not gone outside.

But Isaac, then 25, wouldn’t come with her. She thinks the shrieking smoke detectors frightened him.

“If he didn’t want to do something, he would do a sit-down strike,” she said. And that’s what he did, and slipped off his pajama shirt.

She tried to coax him, but she was getting hot, and went outside to get some air thinking she could go back in. Isaac was sitting only about two steps from the outside door.

She didn’t get the chance.

“I almost collapsed,” she said.

Then she heard the whooshing thump of a backflash and saw flames.

Steven had come out of the cellar and asked where Isaac was. When he heard their son was still inside, he went in after him.

“He didn’t hesitate one bit. He came right up the ramp,” she said. “I said, ‘Go low,’ you know, and he went in and that’s the last time I saw him.”

Even a year later, Meunier, the Washington fire chief, has a clear recollection of that morning including the weather and what time the call came in.

Washington is part of a multi-town fire mutual aid agreement that includes Jefferson and Union, and they all turned out.

When firefighters arrived, they found heavy fire smoke.

Fire crews set up a tanker shuttle system to fight the fire, and they were able to knock it down.

The fire destroyed the home and its contents.

“It was a long day,” Meunier said. “We did bring the son out. He didn’t make it.”

Steven Rhodes’ body was recovered from the rubble in the basement later that day.

By the end of the month, the State Fire Marshal’s office determined the cause of the fire could not be identified because of the degree of the damage to the house. Investigators said there was nothing to indicate the fire was anything but an accident.

The deaths of Steven and Isaac hit the department hard. Rachel’s husband Dean Batlis is one of the fire captains in the Washington Fire Department, and the loss was felt throughout the organization.

FINDING HER WAY HOME

Now, Rhodes is rebuilding.

Work started on the house that now sits on the same parcel of land as the original house started in May. Within weeks, it will be completed.

Her portion of the house is an open-plan living room and kitchen, with a bedroom and a bathroom just off the main room. She shares an entryway and a laundry area with the two-story main house where Rachel and Dean and their children live.

Her space is devoid of clutter and mementos and the items that people collect over the course of their lives.

“I don’t want a lot of clutter,” she said.

To ease her dry throat, Rhodes went in search of a glass for water, trying two cabinets before locating one.

In one corner of the living room a large TV is mounted, and pictures and paintings waiting to be hung lean against another wall.

Sitting on an easy chair that was delivered only five days earlier in her living room, newly painted seafoam green because she and Steven and Isaac loved the ocean, she said for a long time she didn’t know why she survived.

But now she does.

It came to her at a teen church retreat in Howland, where she had driven several girls from South Liberty Baptist. Rhodes found herself at the front of the church.

She doesn’t remember all she said, but she remembers she said this, which she recounted in a voice thick with unshed tears, sometimes fading to just a whisper.

“In a blustery January of this year (2017) I had everything in this world. I owned my home, I married my best friend, and I lost it in a twinkle of an eye. I lost my home in a fire and I lost my husband and a son. I don’t really know why I am here because I don’t want to be. We were together for 40 years. I just wish someone could help me figure it out.”

The pastor said God wants her to make a tract with her story on one side and the Roman Road — Bible verses taken from the New Testament book of Romans that show the path to salvation — on the other.

So that’s what she’s doing.

In the days since she moved into her home, on that bright winter afternoon scented with the apples simmering on her stove for applesauce, she said she has not had one nightmare, and she hopes it stays that way.

Rhodes is praying, and she’s working on telling her story.

“God will tell me what to write.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

Elizabeth Rhodes points to where she was burned, in the house fire that killed her husband and son, during an interview on Jan. 16 in Washington. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal )

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