Doris Bender cleaned ants out of the refrigerator of her unscathed four-bedroom home Friday while, all around her, dazed neighbors searched through the ashes of what once had been similar luxury residences on the scorched Mystic Hills ridge.
Tough construction and tenacious firefighting had saved Bender’s uninsured $350,000 home from a firestorm that Wednesday night destroyed dozens of houses on all sides of the Tahiti Avenue home.
Bender, her husband To Bui, and their children, Angie, 17, and Meka, 12, wandered in shock Friday through their pristine house.
“Everything is still unclear to me,” said Angie, standing in her house for the first time since she ran from it Wednesday.
“Should I be feeling guilty or happy? I feel both, because other people lost their homes and ours is here. Nobody deserved for their house to be burned,” Angie said.
Bender’s nearly untouched home seems to have been surrounded by an invisible protective curtain. Three window panes cracked from the heat of the fire, but plants in the front-yard were green and alive.
The light pink stucco walls, washed clean by hours of spray from fire hoses, glistened against the black char of the hillside.
Perhaps the most damage done to the home was by the dozen news teams tracking in dirt and soot as they interviewed the family.
Bui, who built the house with a friend, said he made it tough to withstand fire, earthquake or mudslide. Thirty-foot-deep reinforced concrete pilings hold the house to the steep slope. The concrete walls are a foot thick.
Bender had planned Friday to quickly clean her house and then volunteer with Angie to help victims of the fire. Instead, she spent hours talking to reporters and amazed visitors.
“Hi. I’m your neighbor, Tom Scott,” said one visitor, walking up to Bui and Bender. “You guys were very lucky,” he told them.
Scott was not so lucky. Nothing was left of his home only six doors down from Bender’s.
Sunset Beach fire Capt. Terry Junkins, who fought Wednesday to protect the couple’s home, came to check the structure after seeing photos of it in a newspaper.
“It’s the little victories we’ve had in the last few days that have kept us going,” Junkins told Bender, his voice gravelly from two days of breathing smoke.
“We were feeling pretty down this morning until we saw the picture,” he said. “Then, we were jumping up and down on the beach.”
Junkins said his engine and an Orange County Fire Department engine spent most of the night protecting the house, which had a hydrant in front of it.
The rest of the block was already in flames when Junkins arrived about 5 p.m., but the Bender-Bui house looked salvageable, he said.
Bender twice hugged Junkins and laughed with relief as the tall fireman showed the family where he stood on their balcony for two hours, spraying water to keep away the flames from a nearby house.
“Sorry about your drain spout. I hit it off with my water stream,” he said in mock apology to the family.
Junkins said he would return later in the day to snap a picture to hang in his fire station.
“Come any time,” said Bender, inviting him over for dinner.
Two local architects also came Friday to study the design and materials used in the house. The thick concrete walls, tile roof, double-paned glass windows and absence of flammable shrubs helped save the house, said Eric Zuziak, 31.
Zuziak said he and architect Chris Abel had police permission to study homes that survived the fire. They will share their findings with other architects and builders in the Southland, he said.
Bender’s neighbors, many of whom returned for the first time Friday, combed their homes for tools, rock collections, chinaware and anything else that might have survived the 2,000-degree heat.
None begrudged the couple their miracle.
“They kept telling us when they built it, it was fireproof. I was glad,” said Evelyn Atwood, whose home two houses away was ruined.
“He did the smart thing, with stucco siding and boxed eaves,” said next-door neighbor Frank Wright as he stared at the burnt husks of a 1959 Jaguar roadster and 1962 MG Midget--the only things showing that his blackened lot had once held a home.
All visitors were shocked that the luxurious Bender-Bui home was uninsured.
Bender said she had tried to buy insurance in 1989, when building began. She said many companies refused to insure because the house is in a steep, dry canyon.
Others charged rates that seemed outrageously expensive when compared to rates in Germany, the country she came from in 1989.