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Starting over: House blaze derails family

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The trucks and the firefighters were gone by the time he got home, as was nearly everything else.

"It doesn't feel real," he said that day in late April.

Now, weeks after the fire, when even a late May rainstorm isn't enough to wash the smell of smoke off the house, the reality has become quite clear.

The windows have all been broken out, boarded up. Glass crunches on the way to the backyard where the children's toys lie strewn about on the ground. Welcome mats have been removed, replaced by yellow tape and a note from the city building official: "DO NOT ENTER UNSAFE TO OCCUPY."

And on the platform of Salt Lake City's Central Station, Russ Brown waits for the 5:55 to Starting Over.

From his job in Salt Lake City to his family's new apartment in Clearfield, the train ride takes all of 42 minutes this evening, and in his new life, these moments are hugely significant.

In a world where a single spark can change the lives of an entire family, the minutiae matter. Twenty-nine miles is a world away from the only city he's ever called home. Forty-two minutes feel like an eternity.

The mind wanders.

"I like this driver," Brown says, recognizing the operator's voice over the intercom. "She goes faster than the other ones. It gives me less time to think. Usually I just sit here and start thinking about it. It drives me nuts."

"It" is the fire that ripped through his home at 729 S. 500 East on the morning of April 28. "It" happened just before 10, and no one was home but the family dog, Buddy, who could not escape. Few things survived, as Brown discovered for himself each time he returned to the house after the fire.

"You have to go for yourself, even though it hurts you inside," he said. "You need to. For closure, I guess."

He sifted through the blackness. He saved his wedding album, a hat his wife gave him as an anniversary gift, his grandfather's Bible, a ring that had been handed down through the family and the urn filled with Aunt Thelma's ashes.

Investigators were never able to pinpoint an exact cause. "Human accidental," said Salt Lake Fire Chief Denny McKone.

Brown has run a million scenarios through his mind. He says, "I wish I could have done something — anything." He says, "I feel like I let my family down."

It's 6:12 p.m., and the train is making its way through Bountiful. Brown's eyes focus on the city's east bench.

"I look at the scenery and then I look at the houses and then I think about our house," he says.

The home was his mother's, and his grandfather's before that. It was full of old wiring, bad pipes and good memories.

It was also uninsured.

As he looks at the new subdivisions sprouting up on the other side of those trees, just beyond the train's windows, he promises to get his family back into a house soon. Apartment living just isn't the same, he says. There's something about having your own walls, floor and ceiling. "Something that is actually yours."

He also wants to get back to Salt Lake City. The first few times Brown rode this train to Clearfield, he watched the city's skyline shrink behind him and then hid his face so no one would see him cry.

"That's all I've ever known," he says. "It's everything. All my memories."

Brown knows he's not the only one with these problems. In the Salt Lake area, the American Red Cross has responded to 51 fires, assisting 97 families since last July.

Brown also knows how lucky he was that the house was empty when the fire started. His wife, Connie, and their three boys were not injured. This is the first thing most people point out after a fire, if they are so fortunate. This is the first thing Brown says, and he thanks God for it.

"Life will go on," Brown said just minutes after seeing his destroyed home for the first time, even if he didn't believe it at the time.

For a while, he needed sleeping pills to get any rest. He lost weight, though his friends joked he didn't notice because of his new clothes — the ones that were given to him because all of his were lost in the fire.

His oldest boy, 10-year-old Levi, has overheard his parents talking about money, and now he worries, Brown says. Cameron, 7, refuses to sleep on his new bunk bed after seeing his old one after it was destroyed by the fire. Dylan, 5, will be fine "as long as he has his momma," and Connie Brown is holding the family together.

The boys will adjust to their new school. Life will go on. But there are stops along the way.

Woods Cross. Farmington. Despair. Hope.

Somewhere near Layton, the 5:55 to "Ogden and points north" stops on the tracks. A train headed for "Salt Lake and points south" passes. Russ Brown is some point in the middle, trying to get comfortable in a donated shirt.

Brown felt trapped at work while his wife looked for a new place to live, but he had to support his family. The Red Cross paid for three nights in a hotel, and with each day that passed, Brown felt panic set in deeper.

"What are we going to do? Where are we going to live?" He would have liked to stay in Salt Lake City, but he jumped when he was approved for an apartment in Clearfield. It was the first time he had felt relief in days.

It's 6:37 p.m. when the train pulls into the Clearfield station. From here, it's a mile and change back to Brown's apartment, where things will be different, but the same. He will eat and shower. He will pray with his boys before he puts them to bed.

"I am getting better, bit by bit," he says before he leaves. "Day by day, it's getting a little easier."

To be to work by 7, Brown will be back here tomorrow morning to catch the 5:53 to Salt Lake City. And maybe tomorrow those 42 minutes will go just a little bit faster.

E-mail: afalk@desnews.com