Peace (House) Out

by Paul Bass | March 5, 2008 4:12 PM | | Comments (8)

DSCN8856.JPGCharlie Pillsbury checked the front porch light. Maybe the compact fluorescent bulb had burnt out after all. Then he looked up — and saw his historic Queen Anne Victorian home in flames.

The next day Pillsbury, Rev. Allie Perry, and their English Shepherd Dani were safely parked at a friend’s house directly across St. Ronan Street in the East Rock neighborhood. First order of business: Start washing their clothes. Find a place to spend the next few days. Deal with adjusters and contractors. And look for somewhere to live for the next year as their gutted 3,900-square foot home gradually returns to life.

Thirty firefighters spent four hours battling the fire Tuesday night, which pretty much gutted the house. It appears that an electrical problem was the source.

Well known in New Haven for their decades of peace activism, Pillsbury and Perry received visits and offers of help practically from the moment the blaze began . They were sad about lost belongings, but grateful no one was hurt.

Perry was also sad about all the community events that won’t take place at the house for the next year. From Green Party gatherings to Sister City potlucks, United Church clergy meetings to WPKN fund-raisers, 247 St. Ronan St. has been more than just the address where New Haven’s First Couple of Peace hits the pillow every night.

Among Perry’s first thoughts: “Thank God I have insurance. Not everybody does.”

Pillsbury’s: “Now I know what it’s like to be in New Orleans.

Early Warning

In retrospect, the couple got a preview of the trouble to come Tuesday morning when a cleaning woman plugged a vacuum cleaner into an outlet in the front hall. Sparks shot out. A hanging weaving caught fire. The woman screamed.

Perry was out of the house at a yoga class at the time. Pillsbury was home. He grabbed the hanging, put out the fire.

DSCN8851.JPGThe outlet was charred, a prong from the vacuum plug broken. “It was a pretty intense smell for such a small fire.” Pillsbury lined up an electrician to come Wednesday to repair the outlet. (By the time the electrician arrived, shown in the photo, it would be too late.)

Fast forward to Tuesday night, just before 8.

Perry was in Boston, where she planned to stay overnight with friends before teaching her course on nonviolence at the Andover Newton Theological School.

Pillsbury was arriving home from City Hall. He’d been attending a public meeting on the upcoming year’s dispersal of federal block grants; the agency he runs, Community Mediation, depends on block grants for one of its programs.

Pillsbury turned on the outside lights. The front light didn’t go on. That was strange; compact fluorescents tend to last longer than this one had. So Pillsbury checked the fuse box in the basement.

A circuit breaker had indeed been tripped. He reset it. It immediately tripped back.

So he returned upstairs to check the porch. He also took Dani out for a walk “since she’d been in the house for four hours.”

He walked her up the street about 100 yards, returned, crossed the street to his home to retrieve his recycling bins. He checked the porch light. Then he looked up.

“I can see through a window to the left of the front door. There was a sheet of flames.”

Pillsbury returned to a side door, walked in, grabbed the phone, rushed outside and called 911.

He went back in through the side door to hang up the phone. The door slammed behind him. “I’m trying to walk into the kitchen. The blast of heat from the front is already in the back. So much for my idea that I could put it out with a fire extinguisher!”

In an instant he and Dani were back outside, waiting for the firefighters.

The 30 firefighters brought the blaze under control within 40 minutes, according to Assistant Chief Ralph Black. They stayed on until midnight, seeking and extinguishing “fires that got into the walls.”

Word Goes Out

Meanwhile, the moderator of the St. Ronan-Edgehill neighborhood listserv, Peter Dobkin Hall, sent an emergency message about the fire to neighbors, some of whom arrived to offer help or kind words.

Pillsbury asked one neighborhood friend, Doron Ben-Atar, if he had any food leftover from dinner. Ben-Atar returned with a steak sandwich and a beer.

“It was great, except I don’t eat steak or drink beer,” Pillsbury said. He appreciated his friend’s generosity, and did “have the sandwich without the steak.”

The city’s Chief Administrative Officer, Rob Smuts, arrived on the scene, which he often does upon hearing reports of two-alarm blazes. Fire Commissioner Boise Kimber showed up, too. The mayor followed a while later.

By 10 p.m., as firefighters continued their work, Pillsbury encountered the first of what would be six separate adjusters seeking his business in less than the first 24 hours.

“One guy was so good, he knew the house was built in 1890,” Pillsbury said. “That’s the tragedy — some of the woodwork dates back to 1890. It’s irreplaceable.” And it’s gone, cherry wood engravings and much of the rest.

The boarded-up outside of the house belied the devastation within. “Between the fire, the smoke and the water,” Pillsbury said, “every room has damage, even though the fire was limited to the front of the house.”

Perry returned from Massachusetts Wednesday morning (she canceled class) to learn that she and Pillsbury need to find a place to live for a good year before they can move back in. They were safely ensconced Wednesday at the home of their friends and neighbors Doug and Mary Stone, recalling the events of the night before and planning their next moves.

Meanwhile, another friend was poking around the boarded-up Victorian across the street, looking for signs of life. She had a meal to deliver.

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Posted by: eli | March 5, 2008 4:42 PM

earth to charlie NO YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS LIKE TO LIVE IN NEW ORLEANS. Not by a long shot. You had ample access to medical care, drinking water and safe shelter.

Posted by: ChrisB. | March 5, 2008 4:56 PM

The guy's house burned down and he lost all of his belongings . . . I say we cut him a break on this one. What do you think Eli?

Posted by: Eliezer Greer | March 5, 2008 7:03 PM

Our prayers are with Mr. Pillsbury and Rev. Perry during this difficut and painful time. We pray that the peace you are known for in this City, will protect you in your time of need.
"[G-d] will protect me in His House on the day of distress" Psalms 27:5

Eliezer Greer
Edgewood Park Defense Patrol

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 5, 2008 8:32 PM

OMG I saw the fire on the news this morning and I knew, I knew the house. This is such a tragedy! A tragedy to such good people. I am so sorry that they have to go through this. To have to see your house burning is one of the most scariest things to go through.

Posted by: John Sawyer | March 6, 2008 10:26 AM

Allie & Charlie:

Caroline Murphy circulated the word amongst United Church folks yesterday. Pam and I offer you our thoughts and prayers.


Posted by: K [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 6, 2008 6:28 PM

I remember attending fundraisers in that house, and I really wish the best for Charlie and his family.

Even with insurance, losing your house in a fire is pretty traumatic.

And really, I can't believe someone actually read Charlie's New Orleans quip as being completely serious.

Posted by: Paul Goodrich | March 7, 2008 8:14 AM

Earth to Eli.

Mr. Pillsbury wasn't trying to equate his struggles with the citizens of New Orleans during Katrina just using it as an example of being displaced. If you knew him you would no that.

Few have done more for the community than this man.

Posted by: Alan Wright | March 7, 2008 8:21 AM

I was traveling in Nicaragua when the fire occurred. Less than 24 hours later word had reached me about Allie and Charlie's situation -- from three different sources. It is good to have friends AND insurance! Come to Pennsylvania for a breather this Spring!

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