From the ashes: McCampbell pushes forward after devastating fire
When humanities professor Mary McCampbell left Cleveland to travel to Memphis with her mother on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, she had no idea that her home would never look the same.
On the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 28, McCampbell woke up to a collection of heartbreaking text messages and phone calls that confirmed there had been a fire in her house.
McCampbell called her landlord back and was then transferred to William Lamb, a chaplain for Bradley County Fire and Rescue.
“I was of course very, very shaken, in shock and kinda burst into tears after getting off the phone cause it just hit me,” McCampbell said.
McCampbell was advised to stay in Memphis for the rest of the week to brace herself to encounter her burnt, damaged and smoky belongings when she arrived back in Cleveland.
Some of her major losses included all her signed copies of Douglas Coupland books, several photographs, student papers, all of her clothing and many pieces of furniture.
Following an investigation, the fire was confirmed to have started in the wiring of her fire alarm. A leak had occurred in that area of the house after a bad storm one month prior to the fire, and when enough moisture had built up in the wiring, it caused a short.
Though a repair had been made the same day McCampbell left her house, it didn’t prevent the fire. McCampbell made it clear that it was no one’s fault – only a “very bizarre set of circumstances.”
“Irony of all ironies: a fire originating in a fire detector,” McCampbell wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017.
While the fire burned many of her most prized possessions, McCampbell said the most damage was due to the water used to contain the blaze.
Lamb arrived on the scene where firefighters were working to put out the fire and save as many things as possible.
“One of the sights that I thought was most important is when [the firefighters] were diligently moving some of Dr. McCampbell’s personal property,” Lamb said. “They were doing it with such care as if it were their own.”
McCampbell continued to post updates on Facebook and eventually returned to what remained of her home to salvage all she could.
“When I first went over there, it was just so overwhelming cause I just didn’t feel emotionally or physically capable of going through stuff,” McCampbell said. “I didn’t lose anyone, but there’s something you’ve kinda cultivated and built for 20-something years, photos and books; it feels like a part of you.”
Despite the extensive damage, McCampbell said she experienced much love and support from her family, friends, coworkers and students. Within hours after McCampbell got word of the fire, Lee alum Zachary Greene set up a GoFundMe account that raised over $5,500 for her.
“I saw the post, and around two hours later I was watching donations pour in,” Greene said. “Someone else would have done it, I just happened to do it first.”
Greene had McCampbell as a professor for a few humanities courses and said she gave him a “a fuller, more complex understanding about the human condition” through her teaching. He expressed his sadness for her academic and personal losses in the fire.
“I immediately thought of all the books, the records, the photos, the letters, the interview notes from Douglas Coupland, the intellectual, personal, intimate treasures that no amount of money can replace,” Greene said. “My heart broke for the loss of her archives. I mourned the burning of her books.”
Around two days after the fire, Sarah Brandenburg, assistant to the director of benevolence, drove over to what remained of McCampbell’s residence and dug through piles of ash to salvage around 250 wet photographs.
“To look at the pictures, they were burned around the edges and you can actually see where the flames had been that close to ruining the pictures,” Brandenburg said. ““It was like God’s way of saying this is a mess, but I’m in control, I’m bigger than this.”
Brandenburg said she gathered the photographs and laid them out to dry in her home.
“I didn’t think I’d done much of anything, but God put me in that place at that time so that I could maybe like give her some of the memories that she held onto,” Brandenburg said.
McCampbell said she received immediate relief in the form of phone calls, emails, monetary donations and gifts. She said around 15 people volunteered to provide her a place to stay temporarily before she was given an apartment in Lee University’s Carroll Courts.
“It’s amazing how even in the midst of something really scary and traumatic, you have that sense of feeling provided for,” McCampbell said. “It really was like seeing the church be the hands and feet of Jesus all over the world and really having that shown to me in a very tangible way is pretty amazing.”
McCampbell worked with several others to remove items from her home, many of which had to be treated with ozone due to the clinging stench of smoke.
After returning to Cleveland from Christmas break, sophomore biochemistry student Anna Ostrander helped McCampbell sift through kitchen items, papers and the remains of books before the house was gutted.
Ostrander said while she was there to help salvage all she could, she felt that she was there mainly to provide moral support for McCampbell.
“I think it was really good for her to go in there with people because she had been in and out of there so many times and I think she was just getting so tired of seeing it,” Ostrander said. “She’s so appreciative of all the help she’s gotten, and people have really kinda rallied around it and tried to make it easier on her.”
With a short time remaining before the start of the semester, McCampbell said she didn’t feel like she got much of a Christmas break. She took 113 pounds of paper to be shredded and started a list of all her losses to provide to the insurance company.
But the blessings kept rolling in.
McCampbell was able to move into a Carroll Courts apartment and the humanities department offered to bring her meals and provided gift cards for McCampbell’s groceries. She also received checks in the mail and author Douglas Coupland said he’d send her more signed copies of his books to replace the ones she lost.
“I know it was God prompting these individuals to do these things for me,” McCampbell said. “I really feel ok and it’s because of so much support, people praying for me and just seeing God protecting me in many ways.”
McCampbell’s home is currently being rebuilt, and she plans to move back there in the next few months. She expressed her thanks to her landlord, the firefighters and all the friends and family who have helped her rise above the ashes of her home.
“I was blessed a lot—even in the midst of it—and I learned from it,” McCampbell said. “I learned about God, I learned about my network of friends and the church became so real in its support.”
McCampbell returned to teach spring 2017 classes as she continues to process the fire incident and account for her total loss.
"The most amazing thing to me is that even in the midst of all that, she was able to get back to work and invest just as much in classes and everything as if nothing had happened," Ostrander said.
Lamb also said the fire provided a way for the community to care for McCampbell, who he says is “very active in speaking up for people who may not be able to speak up for themselves.”
“Don’t shy away from the opportunity to make an impact in somebody else’s life,” Lamb said. “I think that God gives us intersections in life with people that we can care for them.”