Spanaway – The cinders from Nathan Foster’s Spanaway home crunched under his shoes as he walked. He held a wallet photo booklet in his ash-stained hands and flipped through the pages. The fire didn’t touch most of the pictures. He stared at snapshots of his family, smiling during happier, simpler times.
“So much is gone or ruined,” the 32-year-old father of four said Friday. “We probably don’t even know everything that was destroyed. But we really are trying to look on the positive things.”
It’s been three weeks since a fire tore through the Fosters’ home. The insurance company declared it a total loss, and it could be a long time before they can rebuild and move back in.
The family struggled at times with despair and uncertainty: How would Nathan, a Washington National Guard soldier, get home from Iraq? How would they deal with the insurance company? Where would they stay?
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But the positive things about which Foster speaks are many. Neighbors, many of whom they rarely talked to, offered help. Strangers helped collect donations of money, clothes and more for them. Family took them in.
And the Army, just days before Nathan was scheduled to return to Iraq, reclassified him, allowing him to stay with his family.
“It’s been a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario,” said Nathan, a staff sergeant with the 81st Brigade Combat Team. “Things get frustrating at times, yeah, but really, people have been so helpful this entire time. I’ll always remember that.”
A HOME LOST
For Nathan’s wife, Katherine, and the kids, April 19 was the kind of day weekends are made for: She relaxed in the family room and browsed online on her laptop. Two of the kids played Nintendo Wii; another played video games on the computer. Levi, 7, took a break from video games and went upstairs. He ran back down.
“Mom,” he said, “I see a shadow.”
The smoke alarm went off seconds later. Katherine scrambled to gather the children and head outside. They heard a banging sound – one of their neighbors was pounding on the door to alert the Fosters about the fire.
They ran outside and across the street. The kids screamed. Katherine turned around and saw her sport-utility vehicle on fire. Popping noises – aerosol cans and tires cooking in the garage – followed.
The Fosters had been helping relatives move when they first saw a two-story house across the street was for sale. Its location, with a rural feel but close proximity to commercial centers, was a big draw. They moved in five days before Christmas 2006. But now Katherine and the kids stood barefoot and in their pajamas, watching the house burn as the fire department battled the blaze.
“It seemed like it was going on forever,” said Katherine, 37. “It really did.”
Nathan, meanwhile, was almost 7,000 miles away. His unit of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, which secures convoys of tractor-trailers that supply American military bases throughout Iraq, had just completed its move from Tallil in the country’s southeast to Joint Base Balad. The entire move took two days, and the soldiers had arrived at the sprawling base north of Baghdad in the early morning.
Foster was asleep when another soldier woke him up to tell him his house had caught fire. Exhausted from the move and disoriented from waking so abruptly, he stared at the messenger.
“He was talking to me for five minutes,” he said. “I just looked at him like he was crazy. When it finally set in, I just sat there amazed.”
Foster arrived home two days later, no small feat for a country in which flights are often canceled, booked solid or rescheduled with little notice. His family met him at Sea-Tac Airport, and they drove straight to the house. What hadn’t burned was ruined from water or smoke.
To Foster, it felt like a punch in the gut.
“It was shocking,” he said.
The response from the community was swift.
Comcast, where Nathan’s stepfather works, has been collecting clothes, money, a computer and mountain bikes. Officials from Camp Murray called daily to check on them. A church in Kent donated food and gift cards to Fred Meyer. An elementary school has offered bicycles and clothes. Neighbors took in their dog. The family of six is living with Katherine’s family in Federal Way.
“I’m impressed with the reaction,” Katherine said. “Extremely impressed. I don’t even know the names of the majority of people who offered to help us. There’s really no way I could ever thank them all.”
The largest gift, though, came from the American Legion. Officials from the Washington National Guard contacted the veterans organization, which operates a “benevolent fund” for service members who find themselves in sudden need.
Nathan didn’t say how large the donation was, but “it’s a big chunk of money, which will go a long way.”
Nathan, a full-time supply sergeant with Bravo Company, 181st Brigade Support Battalion was scheduled to return to Iraq early this week, but has been reclassified so he could stay in Washington and help with the aftermath of the fire.
He still needs to go through the demobilization process at Fort McCoy, Wis., a process that’s expected to last up to two weeks.
“I’ll take two weeks in Wisconsin over two months in Iraq any day,” he said. “I’m just ecstatic about it.”
“You don’t know how much people care,” he said, “until you go through a tragedy.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758