Firefighters pick man, son for Christmas help

Crew raises money for family after fire damages new home

Posted: Tuesday, December 25, 2007

ANCHORAGE - It was just one thing after another for Gabriel Wilburn.

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He went from living in a cramped camper on top of his truck with his 3-year-old son and two dogs to moving into a newly purchased Mountain View mobile home - only for it to catch fire days later.

The unemployed man's woes, though, did not go unnoticed. In a rare but not unheard-of move, Anchorage Fire Department firefighters who responded to his burning trailer saw him as a man coping with a string of bad-luck mishaps and adopted him as their Christmas charity.

Firefighters from Station 3 in Airport Heights and central station dispatchers have in the past couple of weeks donated more than $800 in materials, and more than a dozen of them pitched in to help rebuild his home. They have dropped off a Christmas tree, lights and much-needed winter clothes for Wilburn's son, Erho. And a "Santa Claus" has even stopped by on a fire truck to bid the little boy a special Merry Christmas.

Wilburn just can't believe the outpouring.

"This is so cool," he said last week, while showing off the work the firefighters did.

"It definitely gives me a big boost."

Dispatcher Lori Zaumseil has been one of the leaders in the charity effort.

"We run into people every day that have tragedy," she said. "We can't help everybody, but we can help somebody."

Wilburn is a commercial diver who has spent most of his 16-year career diving around the West Coast for sea urchins and abalone. He moved from Dutch Harbor to Anchorage several months ago to build a better life for him and his son, but the employment he thought was guaranteed fell through.

He and Erho, and their two dogs, I.Q. and Solar, ended up living in a camper. Wilburn began shopping at the food bank.

When Wilburn's grandfather's will recently gave him a couple thousand dollars, he seized the opportunity to buy a mobile home in Mountain View. He thought it was a turning point when things were going to start getting better.

But the turning point went the other way on Dec. 10.

That day he tried to heat the new trailer by lighting a fireplace the previous owner had told him was real but in fact was ornamental. The wall caught on fire, opened a hole in the roof, and wreaked havoc on his electrical system.

The dozen firefighters spent the better part of a day doing major repairs to his two-bedroom, one-bath trailer off Commercial Drive in mid-December.

Local businesses also chipped in once the 911 dispatchers told them what happened. There are even some special gifts on the way, Zaumseil said, ones that will make the health-conscious and mostly vegetarian Wilburn happy.

The home still has a long way to go before he and his son are living in it comfortably, though.

As Wilburn described how the firefighters shared their time, skills and money to help him, his son looked up at him, peeking through his hat that he still wears inside the home and tugged at his father's shirt.

The boy wanted his father's help in peeling an orange. He asked him to come, then said something to him in "baby sign" language.

His father signed back, brushing one of his hands into the other.

"It means 'share,"' he said, translating for those around, and went on talking about what the firefighters did.

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