Fire chiefs reach out to steady shaken Powell neighborhood

KATHLEEN MERRYMAN; STAFF WRITERFebruary 15, 2012 

The hurt just keeps on coming for the people who knew Charlie and Braden Powell or live near the house where their father, Josh Powell, murdered them on Feb. 5.

Graham Fire & Rescue Chief Reggie Romines and Deputy Chief Gary Franz opened the station Monday evening, extending an invitation for people to talk with chaplains, law enforcement officers and firefighters.

It was a safe place, and some 50 people, mostly women, attended. Some lived near the house Josh Powell blew up. Some knew the dead boys and lived near their custodial grandparents’ home a few miles away.

All shared similar torments: They couldn’t sleep, and when they did, they had nightmares. They felt violated. They couldn’t banish images. They felt unbalanced, hyper-tense, exhausted, alone. They could not forgive themselves for things they did, or did not do.

When the house exploded, an adjacent neighbor was in her yard, her favorite place. She had no idea the boys were inside. She grabbed her camera and can’t forgive herself for filming the fire in which three people died. She can’t imagine being able to ever again enjoy her backyard.

A mom, there with her teen daughter, spoke of feeling dazed, disconnected from real life. She had found herself in the grocery store with no idea of what she needed to buy. She was driving when she realized she had no idea how she had gotten there, or where she was going.

A young woman spoke of feeling constantly on the verge of alarm. She is sore all the time, she said, because she can’t make her muscles relax.

A woman keeps having flashbacks to a fatal fire from which she saved two children, and to another incident in which one of her friends was murdered by her husband.

A woman who lives near the house felt violated by the media and what she called the stream of looky-loos driving past. They struck her as vultures. She confronted one looky-loo parked at the school bus stop. That woman spat back that if she couldn’t stand the traffic, she should just go inside and pull the blinds.

A different, and much better, woman who lives near the children’s home apologized for being part of the traffic but said she had to visit the site to believe what had happened and to pray for the boys.

And then there is flat denial.

“I got a letter today with 10 points on why this didn’t happen,” said Pierce County sheriff’s Det. Sgt. Denny Wood.

“These are all natural reactions to an abnormal experience,” Pierce County sheriff’s chaplain Rick Bulman told them. “I can’t fix what’s broken, but I can help people go through it.”

He made no promises that the journey would be short or that a person can make it without help.

“Your sanctuary was violated,” he told the woman who filmed the fire. Grabbing a camera was normal. Though she is blameless, so is feeling guilt now that she knows the whole story.

“It will settle down,” he said. “It takes time and maybe effort. Maybe you will enjoy your backyard again.”

As abnormal as it feels, the sense of disorientation is common, said Chaplain Ray Clark. You can’t make peace with something if you can’t make sense of it. Your brain keeps trying to work on it; your heart keeps trying to work against it. Strange as it feels, rejecting the event is a sign of mental health and a good person.

Talk, the chaplains advised the group. Talk with friends, people in the same boat, good listeners. And if that does not rub the edge off the pain, talk with a counselor.

Listen, they also said. Be there and be patient. Make it safe for people, like one woman’s strong, silent husband, to spill their grief.

“If you bottle up your emotions, you don’t get better, you get worse,” Bulman said.

Exercise. Eat properly. Get rest, Bulman said. Take care of yourself.

And if you need help, know that Graham Fire & Rescue stands ready to connect you with it.

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677 kathleen.merryman@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/street

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