Published: Fall 2009 in College News

One Year Later

Recovery from the Tea Fire continues on campus and in the lives
of those most affected by the disastrous conflagration

Scorched trees have sprouted new leaves. Plants have reclaimed once ashen under-growth. Hillsides above campus are turning green. Students and Resident Director Mark McCormick and his wife, Nora, moved back into rebuilt structures in Clark Halls at the start of the fall semester. Faculty and their families who lost homes in Las Barrancas have returned less than a year later to beautiful new houses. The residents joyfully celebrated this remarkable achievement at a rededication service Nov. 1.

Accomplishing such progress and recovery in a short space of time is gratifying, but scars from the fire remain on campus and in the lives of those who lost so much.

The blaze erupted Nov. 13, 2008, destroying 210 homes in the local community as well as eight Westmont buildings and 15 faculty homes, displacing 62 students, 18 faculty and nine staff members. Three of the eight buildings have been rebuilt, all in Clark Halls. Three were scheduled for demolition anyway, and the physics and psychology facilities will not be replaced as those departments will move into Winter Hall when it’s finished in October 2010.

The college community gathered for two observances of the emotional anniversary.On Nov. 12, faculty recalled their experiences during the fire. Panelists included President Gayle D. Beebe and his wife, Pam; theater professor John Blondell and his wife, Victoria Finlayson; philosophy professor Jim Taylor and his wife, Jennifer, director of internships; music professor Phil Ficsor and his wife, Claire; and biology professor Eileen McMahon. Many mentioned the surreal nature of losing their home or seeing it significantly damaged. All expressed deep gratitude for the support and generosity they received. Finlayson spent the night of the fire in the gym with her three sons and said, “It was beautiful to see how people handled the stressful situation.” Blondell, who was in Minnesota at the time, recalls thinking of the gym as a kind of Noah’s ark keeping his family safe. Jennifer Taylor had trouble remembering things or concentrating enough to read after losing her home. She did regain these abilities and glimpsed “God’s goodness and provision” in the process. Claire Ficsor noted, “God’s provision was tailored to the needs of each family.” McMahon said she learned that people are “extravagantly generous” and that “self-sufficiency can be a barrier to community.”

On Nov. 13, the Westmont College Student Association hosted a reception, “One Year Later: A Tea Fire Commemoration,” outside the Nancy Voskuyl Prayer Chapel. Students led a time of prayer and worship and displayed a video and photos of the fire and its aftermath.

For images taken one year after the fire, see www.westmont.edu/teafire_anniversary/.

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