The anguish of being lucky: Those who ask, ‘Why not me?’
The mental anguish caused by the Angora fire may live on far beyond the laying of the first foundation after the devastation that claimed 254 homes and the serenity of residents.
The path of the raging fire wiped out certain homes while leaving others standing next door. The random nature of the destruction has left many scratching their heads — including residents whose houses were destroyed and those who live in dwellings left intact.
As for the latter — just because the house is OK doesn’t mean you are.
There’s a reason why the American Red Cross dispatched workers with counseling experience to help victims get through the trauma. But they’re not alone.
Firefighters and people in homes that were spared have expressed feelings of dismay. Some call it empathy or sympathy. Most people, including therapists, refer to the emotion as survivors guilt — feeling bad about feeling good, OK or safe.
“I feel lucky, of course, but on the other hand, there’s an odd feeling, like I’m displaced,” Drake Niven said from his Mount Diablo Circle home. He transferred his nervous energy to his craft. Being a contractor, he picked up materials from Meeks Lumber and built “sifters” people could use to find small items in the ash.
“These people grew up with my kids,” he said. Niven even opened up his home’s bathroom to public safety personnel, who have combed the area in great numbers lately.
Bill Jenkins, a Sierra Counseling therapist, said doing something effective for the cause helps many people cope in the aftermath of disaster.
“They’re trying to deal with their own sense of vulnerability,” he said. “Right now, our anxiety rate is high. We have a long summer to get through.”
No one knows better than Kit Bailey, fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Bailey has had a pep talk with his troops, warning them to be on guard, but also to take care of themselves while they’re watching over the community.
Some firefighters are experiencing shades of survivors guilt because people they know have suffered immensely — including some of their own, such as Lake Valley’s Joe McAvoy and John Lilygren, who retired recently from the city.
“We feel so bad. We feel like we could have done more,” Lake Valley Firefighter John Poell said, looking dazed Wednesday on his first break since Sunday. When the fire jumped the line last Tuesday, it threatened his Tahoe Island neighborhood.
Bill Danton, a local counselor, said public safety personnel take the wrath harder than most.
“In public service, there’s always that mentality: ‘We wanted to do more,'” he said. “If there are consequences, you have second guessing. With a disaster like this, everything never goes as smoothly as you’d like.”
Danton added that he isn’t surprised by the reaction given the size of the Angora tragedy. He insists the survivor guilt lasts longer than many people might think.
“I don’t know if we’ve only seen the bulk of the iceberg,” he cautioned.
Joan and Tom Worrell look out at the devastation surrounding them from their lawn, feeling “very lucky,” they said.
“The whole thing is so sad. Our hearts go out to these people,” she said.