Blue ballpoint pen in hand, 11-year-old Connor Beene sat at a desk and edited his Christmas list in the hotel room where he’s living with his mom and dad.
The Steilacoom boy told his mom not to look. But later that night, after Connor was asleep, Cheryl Beene couldn’t help but sneak a peek.
One line stood out, highlighted with stars:
“All I want, Santa, is my family to have a great Christmas.”
After losing everything in a house fire last month, Cheryl Beene and her husband, Casey, share their autistic son’s wish.
At a time when their neighbors are coming together to celebrate the holidays, it’s hard for the Beenes to think about doing the same. Their home, known for its elaborate holiday displays, will sit dark this year for the first time since the family moved in nine years ago.
“I’m trying to put on a really brave front for (Connor) and it’s really hard because I don’t feel brave,” Cheryl Beene said. “There is no ‘What to do after a fire destroys everything’ book.”
Pale blue with blue trim, the roughly 1,900-square-foot home was built in 1930 and stands at the corner of Main and Sequalish streets, next to the oldest church in Steilacoom.
The home will have to be rebuilt.
The Beenes are grateful for the fire crews that responded, but they can’t help but think about the “what if?” questions.
What if the volunteer fire station across the street had been occupied? It was shut down last year after Steilacoom merged its public safety services with West Pierce Fire & Rescue.
What if the fire could have been avoided?
Preliminary information indicates the fire started in a basement furnace. The family hasn’t seen a final report.
Two days before the fire, the basement filled with sewage. A pump failure on a nearby road-widening project caused the backup, according to Steilacoom Town Administrator Paul Loveless.
The contractor responded and hired a subcontractor to clean the affected homes immediately, Loveless said.
The Beenes question if the backup and fire are related, and they have hired an attorney. Because of the potential for litigation, Loveless had no comment.
Beyond the legal and insurance headaches, the fire’s aftermath has been overwhelming, Beene said. Baby books, family photos and countless other keepsakes were destroyed. A lizard and two cats were killed. Two other cats, Hiccup and Oscar, were resuscitated and survived.
The family is trying to restore routine for Connor, whose autism makes it difficult to adapt to big changes. Living in a hotel without his treasured toys – including 70 WWE wrestling figurines and a blue blanket he used to wrap in to go to sleep – have been hard.
“Kids with autism, and adults too, they rely on things being the same,” Beene said. “They don’t like transition, they don’t like change.”
Beene, 52, spent her career working with autistic children as an early-intervention specialist. When Connor was diagnosed, she pulled back to focus on him. She’s still active in the autism community, connecting military families with support groups and resources.
Casey Beene, 53, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He lives and works in Germany most of the year as a government contractor. He was in Germany when the fire happened but is now home through Christmas.
Connor and his mom are still dealing with the trauma of the fire. The pair returned home from Connor’s appointment at Children’s Therapy Unit in Puyallup on Nov. 20 to find billowing smoke and flames shooting from the house. They had stopped at Five Guys Burgers and Fries for dinner and decided to make it a takeout meal.
Beene doesn’t like to think about what could have happened if they hadn’t returned home when they did.
“I wake up every night at the same time,” Beene said. “I only sleep about two hours at a time.”
Connor gets upset at the sound of police and fire sirens. He goes to Pioneer Middle School only half a day.
Beene has been buoyed by the support of the community and the couple’s four older children – Megan, 25, Dylan, 27, Ryan, 31, and Katie, 32. The adult children, who work as nurses, a firefighter and police officer, have rallied around their parents.
Beene also draws strength from Connor, who despite the nightmares and emotional disruption has shown resilience. He talks about looking for brightness in an otherwise dark situation.
The family had an escape when they were given tickets to the WWE Monday Night Raw show taped this week at Key Arena in Seattle.
“I have not seen that child smile that much in a long time,” Beene said. “It was good healing for everybody just to get away from the fire.”
Comforts from the community, including donations of clothing and gift cards, have also bolstered the family’s morale, said neighbor and good friend Karin Williamson. Beene is used to giving, not receiving, she said.
Shortly after the Beene fire, another home burned in Steilacoom. Beene knew the family and helped organize support for them at the same time people were pulling for her family, Williamson said.
“She’s the type of neighbor that when she moved in, before I could get a ‘Welcome to the neighborhood’ plate of cookies over to her, she was over here with a basket of goodies for our children,” she said.
Connor and his mom talk about how they’ll never forget Nov. 20, but the mother of five says they will move on.
“I’m not going to let what happened ruin our life,” Beene said. “Like Connor says, each day we’ll look for brightness.”
Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467
HOW TO HELP
An online account has been established by Casey Beene’s coworkers to help raise money for the family that lost everything in a Nov. 20 house fire. Donations can be made at gofundme.com/5jdh68, or by searching for “Casey and Cheryl Beene house fire” on gofundme.com.