Friday, February 23, 1996
Losing things shows what really matters

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The mother and father stare at the TV screen and cry in silence.

They are watching a home video of the five-alarm fire that left them and 31 other families homeless six months ago when lightning struck the Georgetown East Apartments in Mount Carmel.

As the tape plays, Lucretia and David Colding's three little boys play with their favorite Christmas toys, a set of fire trucks. The couple sits tensely on the edge of the couch, reliving the nightmarish scenes of orange flames licking from the windows of the boys' bedroom. They remember the firemen. The heat. The rain. The hoses.

Lucretia calls it a stubborn fire. Nothing anyone did could put it out.

David talks about his family's luck. Everyone got out alive.

Not wanting to sound ungrateful, however, he admits he tires of being reminded of that.

For weeks after the fire, people would tell him: ''You're so lucky. Everybody's alive.''

But David, painfully aware he had no renter's insurance, could only nod and say, ''Yeah.'' Deep down, he wanted to scream: ''Yeah. We ARE lucky. But we still lost everything!''

Back to life

David has kept that thought inside him for six months. On this chilly February night, he lets it out. Without guilt. Just relief.

He sits back on his new couch and calmly watches the video as it shows the roof caving in on the fire-gutted apartment the family called home for five years.

The couch is identical to the one lost in the fire. Like many pieces of furniture in the Coldings' new apartment, it was replaced by the Red Cross and donations from family, friends and neighborhood churches. The Red Cross also paid for the family's food and lodging in a motel for 10 days until a place to live was found.

The Coldings - the mother and father, their three young sons, 7-year-old Trevor, 5-year-old Sebastian and 3-year-old Cameron, and the family teen-ager, 15-year-old Derek - were just one of 923 disaster-struck families helped by the Red Cross' Cincinnati chapter in 1995.

With floods, fires, winter storms and sub-zero temperatures spoiling the new year's opening weeks, the Red Cross has already helped 442 area families in 1996.

As the Coldings watch the video, Sebastian walks up to the set and points to the fire. ''I didn't want my Barney to get burnt.''

The fate of a purple dinosaur shatters the quiet tension in the room.

Tears roll down Lucretia's cheeks as she reaches for a Kleenex. David, his eyes still fixed on the fire scene, stretches the sleeve of his T-shirt to wipe his eyes.

Is the assistant manager of an auto body shop crying, or does he just have something in each eye? ''I'm not sure yet,'' he says, half crying, half laughing.

Why them?

Usually, the story on these hard-hit families covers them searching the rubble for mementos on the morning after the night before. TV crews shove cameras and microphones into frightened faces. Someone asks, ''How does it feel?'' Then they disappear to cover another disaster.

The victims are left behind to put their lives back together. First, they must find a place to live.

The Coldings were lucky. They found a year-old apartment one week after the fire. Before the family moved in, the Red Cross provided the first month's rent and security deposit as well as pots and pans and bed linens.

The kids were enrolled in new schools. And, everybody had to get used to living a 20-minute drive from the old home.

The family recovered some prized possessions and learned to get along without others. Before the fire, Lucretia had made two sets of some of her babies' photos. She sent the duplicates to her mother. Now, she's copying the copies.

David's custom-made bass guitar did not survive the fire. Citing changed priorities, he's in no hurry to replace it.

Six months after the roof caved in on their lives, the Coldings feel lucky. While continuing to restock the items needed for life, they've found something special at the back of the shelf. Lucretia says it's a lesson the fire taught them:

''You are basing too much of yourself on things instead of who you are.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.