Fire victim seeks help from community

Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Joe Harris and Phil Kestersen were passing traffic. They were going too fast, then too slow.

"Oh God, Oh God, Oh God," Harris said. "That's all I could think. I could see the smoke from my trailer from Fred Meyer. I knew we were too late. Where there's smoke there's - it means it's gone.

"But I thought if we hurried maybe we could save some of my stuff. ... My kids' pictures was the first thing I thought I had to get. I had to get my kids' pictures."

Harris and his friend were racing from work at Gruening Park on Dec. 5. They had heard a report of a fire at Harris' trailer home in Sprucewood Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

Harris held a small fire extinguisher in his lap. He said he grabbed it when he left work thinking maybe it would help. He said he thought maybe he could save 30 years worth of life mementos he kept in his 40-by-12-foot trailer.

He had hope, until he got to what used to be his trailer.

"I started running toward the trailer thinking, 'I can get in, grab some things and get out,' " Harris said. "But this firefighter butts me in the chest and says, 'You can't go in there.' I just started yelling, 'That's my trailer, that's my home. I just need to get a few things.' "

Harris was "butted" one more time before reality started to sink in that he couldn't save anything.

Harris said he watched the fire sweep from one side of his trailer to the other. It had started near the back of the trailer where it rifled through his box of family photos and burned through his prized Three Stooges album he had never even opened. It danced across the trailer to his music studio where it melted musical memories of playing with various bands throughout Alaska and his solo work he saved to CD for posterity.

"I saw flames shooting out of my windows," he said. "And I watched it burn. And I remember seeing all the smoke and thinking, there goes the studio. There goes my bedroom."

Two days after the fire the numbness had set in, Harris said. He was allowed 30 minutes to go in and gather what was left of his life in the trailer. The trailer, valued at $45,000, was destroyed. A kerosene heater used to heat the pipes was the cause of the fire, said Fire Marshal Randy Waters.

"It's just terrible," Harris said. "There's no words that touch this. All my stuff I want to fix it, I don't know if I'm going to be able to.

"I didn't even have my kids' phone numbers," Harris said. "They live down south, and I couldn't even let them know what had happened. I did find their pictures though. I was so happy I got those out."

With the help of the Red Cross and his friend Kestersen, Harris was put up in a hotel and given some clothes and hope for help.

"I don't know what I would have done without them," he said. "I'm so grateful. I wouldn't have gotten through this."

Harris is still in a hotel paid for by the Red Cross but is facing the task of finding $8,000 to have the remnants of his trailer removed from the lot at Sprucewood - in addition to finding a permanent home and starting to rebuild his life.

Kestersen said that people at Gruening Park have started the Joe Harris Fund. He said canisters are available at any Wells Fargo branch and Costco.

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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