She left work early with a cold, then saved her co-workers’ sons from a burning home

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

As most of us know, there usually is a difference between work family and family family. Sure, you may really like your co-workers, actually spend more time with them than at home and even do things together off the clock, but its not the same as being with loved ones.

When co-workers Rachel Garcia and Jenny Brown say they have always thought of the PeaceHealth specialty clinic in Bellingham where work as a “close-knit family,” they mean it. Brown considers Garcia every bit as much a part of her family as she does her husband and four kids — 15-year-old Michael, 14-year-old Robby, 13-year-old Jenilee and 4-year-old Zander — especially since the events of Dec. 16.

“She’s our guardian angel — a true angel,” Brown said of Garcia in an interview with The Bellingham Herald Wednesday. “That’s how I look at her. It’s how we all feel about her. She’s such a blessing to us, and we’re so thankful to have her in our life. She is family.”

What other term would befit somebody who single-handedly helped lead your youngest son, his teenage babysitter and another teenage neighbor to safety as flames on the back porch threatened to engulf your entire house and you were miles away at work?

“We were always close, but this definitely solidified our friendship,” Garcia told The Herald in an interview Wednesday. “We are family. I feel blessed that I was able to to be there when they needed me and to be part of God’s perfect timing.”

Perfect timing

Garcia certainly didn’t feel “perfect” at the time, though.

After missing two days of work with the “bug that was going around,” Garcia said she tried going to the clinic Dec. 16. But by lunchtime she felt tired and weak and realized it may not have been the best decision, telling her boss, “I gotta go.”

She said it was only the second or third time she had left work early in three years at the clinic.

It turned out to be extremely fortunate that she did, especially considering she lives only a few blocks away from Brown’s home along Pollman Circle south of Lynden.

“I’m going home, and on my left-hand side I see Jenny’s house, and there are flames in back going up above the house,” Garcia told The Herald. “At first, I felt like I was dreaming seeing it, but then I realized it was real. Then I realized my kids were on winter break, and her kids must be, too, and I knew she was at work.

“I stopped in the middle of the road and blew out of my car and went straight to the door. I touched the door handle to see if it was hot or not, and it wasn’t, so I tried it but it wouldn’t open. I started pounding on the window and didn’t hear them, so I tried the door again.”

It was then that Garcia said she began thinking about worst-case scenarios of what she might see behind the door.

“As a nurse, I’ve seen some things, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” Garcia said. “But I tried the door again, and it worked.”

She found Zander, a 13-year-old neighbor and Zander’s 16-year-old babysitter — who is the son of Garcia’s and Brown’s boss at the clinic — sitting on a couch with their backs to the fire, completely absorbed by whatever they were watching on TV and oblivious that anything was wrong.

“They said they thought it was getting kind of warm in the house,” Brown told The Herald, “but they figured the heat was just turned up a little too high.”

Garcia said she actually startled the TV-watching trio when she burst into the room through the front door.

“I told them they needed to get out, and they looked at me like I was crazy,” Garcia said. “Then our boss’s son turned around and saw the flames, and it was like ‘OK.’ He was really helpful in getting the two other kids out.”

Garcia said she got the three kids across the street to safety, and that’s when she noticed smoke billowing from the house. With everybody safe and another neighbor who stopped to assist calling 911, Garcia called Brown at the office.

‘My house is on fire’

“At first I couldn’t understand what she was saying,” Brown said of the call she received from Garcia. “I thought she was talking in another language. I heard what she was saying, and it didn’t process. When it finally sank in, people said I didn’t hang up — I just threw the phone down and said ‘My house is on fire.’

“I remember her saying there was a fire and that the kids were OK. I was so thankful that the kids were safe, but I didn’t know how quick she got them out. I didn’t know how bad the fire was. I didn’t even know how bad the house would be when I got there.”

While neighbors brought blankets and snacks to the kids standing across the street, Garcia said another neighbor approached and calmly said he thought he could put the fire out.

“I was like ‘No way,’” Garcia told The Herald. “But he was so calm, and he went and got a hose from the back and put out the flames. The only reason the entire house wasn’t engulfed was because of him. And he said he’s never left work early in like 15 years, but he had an early job that day and went home early. It was so lucky.”

Brown said she didn’t know that at the time, as she raced up Guide Meridian — “I probably broke a few traffic laws on my way from work to home” — desperately trying to call her husband hands-free on the way and worrying about the scene she’d find at home.

Garcia said she also called her boss at the clinic to let her know that her son also was in the house at the time of the fire and that he was unharmed.

“When I got to the roundabout at Pole Road, I smelled smoke,” Brown said. “That’s when I knew how serious it was. I thought it all would be gone.”

After the fire

Garcia said the North Whatcom Fire and Rescue chief told her after the fire was extinguished that the neighbor who grabbed the hose probably saved the house from total loss and that “if I had been just few minutes later getting the kids out, it could have been a different ending.”

Fortunately, it wasn’t.

Brown said the North Whatcom fire crews, who told her the fire started when a halogen bulb on a backyard light fixture malfunctioned, had to make a few holes to vent the smoke, but most of the damage from the fire was in the attic, where flames spread and burned most of the house’s electrical wiring, but firefighters arrived just as the insulation was beginning to ignite.

But the smoke damage was extensive, forcing the family to get rid of everything from beds and bedding to dishes — “everything except our dressers and a desk,” Brown said.

It also forced the family of six into area motels for what’s expected to be at least three months while construction crews work to clean and repair the damage that was done.

Brown started a gofundme page online (gorfundme.com/our-fire) to help offset some of the costs of staying motels and lost belongings, but of course, she’s most grateful that her son and the other boys were unharmed in the fire.

“We’re just very thankful to everyone,” Brown said. “Obviously to Rachel, who helped get the kids out, but also to the neighbor — I wish I could remember his name — and the fire department, who came out and helped us so fast. Everybody has been so great to us and helped us through.

“We know we are lucky. We are so blessed that everything worked out the way it did.”

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.