The smoke filling a third-floor bedroom in the Folk family home did not warrant much concern, at least not initally.
As Ben Folk — a married father of five children, two dogs and a cat — told it on Friday, the time for worry would not arrive for about a minute.
That’s how long it took for his family to be able to see “the line between clear air and smoke” inside their East Oak Lane home Monday night. And that’s how long it took them to realize a neighbor’s wood-burning stove was not to blame.
With Hurricane Sandy’s outer bands starting to hammer Independence Street with wind and rain, the family sprang into action.
Children ranging in age from 14 months to 14 years old were rushed to a car and spirited off to a relative’s house while Folk was on the phone with 911. The dogs were put into his red Jeep, where they would spend countless hours before a neighbor took them in.
Then, after a last-ditch effort to corral elusive cat Aurie was met with failure (for the time being), Folk stood on a neighbor’s porch across the street.
It was there that he got soaked and wind-chafed while watching the home he’s owned for a dozen years get decimated by an evening fire apparently sparked by a wind-battered PECO junction box.
At least that’s what firefighters on the scene told him caused the orange and white sparks he’d noticed when the smoke was still of minimal concern.
Firefighters arrived so quickly that Folk was still on the phone with a dispatcher when they started battling the blaze.
A painful five days
On Friday, he recalled the six hours he endured wind, rain and the agony of watching embers fly up the block while all of his family’s possession became charred, unsalvageable remnants.
The birthday and holiday pictures. The stuffed animals. The birth certificates. The clothes. The everything else. All gone.
“Sad isn’t quite a strong enough word to describe the emotion of watching everything you have burning up. I don’t know if there is one,” he said a minute or two before finding one. “Crushing. Just crushing.”
As he led NewsWorks on a tour of the inside of his house, one side of a three-story duplex, it became quickly evident that crushing might not even be strong enough.
Black soot coated just about every inch of floor. The line marking how high water rose in the basement was more than six feet from the ground. Beams dangled from the ceiling in his 14-month-old daughter Suri’s room.
“Guess that’s a skylight now,” he said of the opening above a rocking chair.
A blue tarp covered the area once called a roof of a building from which five neighbors were also chased.
“Every day since, I come back here and just look at my house from that parking lot down the block,” he said, gesturing toward a pharmacy at 5th and Independence streets. “It doesn’t look as bad when it’s still dark out at 5 a.m.”
Finding good in the tough times
In comparison to all things Hurricane Sandy, Folk realized that his family’s plight would not warrant round-the-clock TV-news liveshot attention.
In fact, he did not even hear about the before-unimaginable swath of wreckage left in Sandy’s wake until Wednesday or so. Folk, who works in IT for Lockheed Martin in King of Prussia, chalked that up to the power still being out all along his block of Independence Street.
He had not realized that it might be difficult to find a contractor to gut-and-rehab his place considering the volume of rebuilding ahead down at the Jersey shore until a reporter mentioned it. Any such project still awaits the insurance company’s OK, anyhow.
What Folk has learned about is the depth of compassion shown by his boss and co-workers at Lockheed, and families, friends and staff at Green Woods Charter School, the Roxborough school which two of his children currently attend.
This week, both Lockheed — which Folk noted was “the best place on earth to work” several times — and the Green Woods Charter School PTA have gathered so many household items, toys and clothes for he, his wife, Suri, Christopher, Nicholas, Adam and Benjy that he does not know where to put it all besides in his Jeep.
“How can you even thank people enough when they do so much for you and your family?” he sighed, feet from the yellow fire-scene tape still tied to a neighbor’s fence.
Where do they go from here
With so many items already donated, all Folk is seeking are “thoughts and prayers” from those who hear about the family’s predicament. Staying with family until they can get roomier digs, the Folks are currently working out whether they qualify for coverage under a disaster-area claim.
Donations to a yet-established Paypal account to help cover the time until he can get back to work would be nice, too.
As for Aurie the cat, Folk had mourned him as the lone fatality at the scene, adding to concerns about a firefighter who reportedly suffered smoke inhalation battling the blaze. (A Fire Department spokesman was unavailable to comment on the firefighter’s condition or official fire cause on Friday afternoon).
But then came Thursday when, in the steady stream of well wishers who’ve visited Folk on the block this week, a friend and the friend’s girlfriend noticed Aurie peering out of a basement window.
It’s not known how long the cat was in the basement rafters, but considering that they looked remarkably undamaged to the untrained eye, it’s conceivable that he was there when firefighters worked to control the blaze.
As for what he was thinking when the gas company closed off a hole in the middle of the street Friday morning, Folk whittled it down to his most important concern.
“I just want to give my kids their house back,” he said.