City Lights: Fire victim has hopeful outlook

Monday afternoon, I walked through the house of a man who, by any right, should have been devastated. It turned out to be the most uplifting part of my day.

When I arrived at work that morning, I received the startling news that the Woman's Club of Huntington Beach, a city landmark for more than 100 years, had burned nearly to the ground Saturday morning. I called the Fire Department and several club members, then drove to 420 10th St. to see the damage firsthand.

When I stopped in front of the charred structure, with its roof nearly gone and heaps of ash where the front door once stood, I remembered the description that Vice President Elaine Craft had given me minutes earlier. She talked about the antique piano, the antique plates, the decades of paper records all presumed gone in the blaze.

The fortunate thing, of course, is that no one died. The Woman's Club still exists, even without its headquarters, and Craft said the members hope to do the best they can under the circumstances.

The same goes for Mike Orr, a neighbor whose home was also irreparably damaged Saturday.

As I stood taking notes in front of the clubhouse, a man I had never seen before walked up, extended a hand and introduced himself. He said he lived next door and asked if I'd like to take a tour of his house. I didn't inquire about his reasoning — maybe at that moment, it felt good to talk to anyone, media or not — but I accepted the invitation.

Orr, who lived next door to the Woman's Club for 13 years, works as a driver for a liquor company. He and his wife awoke early Saturday morning to the sound of crackling flames and an intense orange glow through the window, then promptly gathered their two dogs and ran outside.

The fire that gutted the Woman's Club quickly spread to Orr's house, tearing through the bathroom he recently remodeled, blowing out the window and singing clothes, furniture and just about everything else. The house, Orr said, will have to be torn down and rebuilt, and he's busy consulting his insurance company.

As we walked up the stairs, we stepped on heaps of ash, dry wall and insulation. Sunlight poked through holes in the wall. Blue tarp covered nearly all the furniture in the living room, and the air reeked of smoke.

How did Orr feel about all this? Mostly, he was glad that he, his wife and his dogs had come out unscathed and that all the material things could be replaced.

"At the end of the day, six, nine months from now, my wife and I are going to get all new clothes, all new furniture and a brand new house," he said.

Granted, Orr has it much better than some. If his insurance is as solid as he expects, he and his wife won't go without for long. And unlike scores of people in Alabama right now, he hasn't had to cope with losing a loved one.

Still, his resilience stayed with me the rest of the day.

I consider myself a nonmaterialistic person, but it's human nature to cling to objects at least sometimes. I have a number of treasured mementos at home that I keep carefully away from dust and sunlight. I can look at CDs in my collection and remember when I bought them and what impact they had at different moments of my life.

If a fire raged through my home and wiped out most of the items I spent years accumulating, I might forgive myself for being crestfallen. But if I found myself in Orr's situation, realizing that I had lost earthly goods and nothing more, I hope that I'd be as philosophical.

"You can either look at it like the glass is half empty," he said, "or the glass is half full."

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.

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