The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

OPINION: My house burning down brought pain as well as family unity

The Channels Opinion Pages | STAFF COLUMN
Anthony Zell stands in solitary in the kitchen of his childhood home on Feb. 16 in Santa Barbara, Calif. While no individuals were harmed, Zell’s father and two dogs were helped down from the second story balcony.

My house burned down. Did I expect this? Were my family and I prepared? Have I since come to terms with what happened? In short – absolutely not. Unfortunately, it happens all of the time, but it’s never a catastrophe you think will happen to you. Until it does. 

The morning of January 31, 2024 will forever be a nightmare that changed my family’s life forever. I had just embarked on my morning walk before saying goodbye to my grandparents who were coming home from an early morning doctor’s appointment. I arrived at school for my 11 a.m. class, dreading the assignments for the day after failing to complete the readings the night prior. 

As I sat in class, I received a text message from a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while. “Are u all good bro?” it read, immediately followed by a phone call. My initial thought was to respond with the uneventful truth: “I know we haven’t talked in a while buddy, but I can’t answer right now, I’m about to fail a quiz.”

Seconds later, my sister called and hung up immediately, continuing this method a couple of times in hopes of getting my attention.

Something didn’t feel right. 

I received a second text message from my old friend: “Your house is on fire. I have been told by the mailman on your route.” It still didn’t click, and I had to read over it a couple of times. I thought it was some sort of sick joke, until I remembered that people don’t joke about things like this.

When my sister and mom finally responded to my messages, they both began their sentences with “don’t freak out” which I knew could not be followed by anything good. They both assured me that everything was fine, under control, and that there was no need for me to go home because everything was okay.

I went back to my seat, feeling anxious and uneasy – as one should when they are told their house is burning down. I glanced around the room and observed everyone engaged in their own conversations. I watched all of them present in their own moments. Now I joke when I say I’ve always wanted superpowers, but at that moment, time. Just. Froze. 

I started to get the feeling that the fire was way worse than I was told. 

I couldn’t just sit there pretending everything was fine. I stood up and asked the class for advice, explaining that my house was on fire and I didn’t know what to do. I was excused and ran as fast as I could across City College’s campus to get to my car and drive home. 

As I turned the corner to my house, the streets were flooded with police officers, paramedics, and firefighters. I ran to find my family, past a police officer who tried to stop me. There was no way I wasn’t getting to my house. 

In a haze, I found my grandparents staring at their home of 40 years – the home that I had occupied for all 25 years of my life. My grandma looked at me with tears running down her cheeks, only able to mutter the words “our house”. It was in that moment that I realized two things:

  1.  The fire was not under control. 
  2. We were about to embark on a journey that none of us could have ever predicted. 

My youngest sister’s day at kindergarten was about to end, and I elected to pick her up. I felt the responsibility to tell her what was going on. In her school parking lot, she asked me if I could take her to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal – something we frequently do when it’s my day to pick her up. I fought the tears in my eyes as I told her that of course we could, unprepared and scared to tell her what had just happened to the only home we had ever known. 

I let her know that there was an accident at home, but that everyone was safe and okay. As I told her the house burned down, she responded as a child should by asking if her toys were okay. Once we made it back home, however, she began to cry at the sight of our house in ruins. 

What caught my eye was my grandfather. Someone had brought out a chair for him, and he sat across the street in the neighbor’s driveway, watching the firemen as they ran in and out, cutting holes in his roof, while his room, the place where the fire originated, went up in flames. He didn’t look scared or upset. He just sat there in disbelief, watching the destruction of everything that he and my grandma had once built. 

Down the street, my mom was already getting help from the Red Cross, being the leader she is. She’s the spokesperson for our family, and in a crisis like this one, we’d be lost without her. 

We were able to enter hours later to retrieve any valuables that we needed, as if there was anything left to grab. In a panic, a couple of us went in to scavenge for any necessities. 

Our house used to be so beautiful, so filled with life, colors, and happiness. Perhaps we took it for granted, because the horrors we witnessed when we walked inside made it completely unrecognizable. It wasn’t our home anymore – it was simply a collection of burnt walls, old belongings, and memories. Its life had been sucked out and disintegrated into ashes and smoke. 

A week later, I decided to take photos of myself inside of what had now become my old home. I walked into and through the house, shadowing the old routines of my everyday life: get home from school, lazily slouch on the couch, ask my mom what’s for dinner, go bother my sisters in their rooms, etcetera. Things a big brother does. However, it hurt my heart to do that, because as I went through each room, checked the fridge, and sat on the couch, I realized with my eyes full of tears, that it would never be the same. I’ll never get this feeling back again. 

Although this was the hardest and most shocking moment of our lives, it has brought us even closer together as a family, closer than we have ever been before.

Story continues below advertisement
More to Discover