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Friday, August 17, 2012

The night the sky turned orange

On Friday night, July 27, 2012, C.A.R.E. sustained a horrible fire that destroyed 1 of our 2 main buildings.  There were 15 volunteers and staff members here that night.  We ran into the burning building full of fear and trepidation to save 35 baby baboons in sleeping cages, 5 clinic patients, and in the upstairs small apartment the founder, 81-year old Rita Miljo and 3 baboons in cages in her indoor/outdoor living quarters.  Tragically Rita, and her 3 baboons, Bobby, Foot, and Sexy, perished in the blaze.  It has been nearly 3 weeks since the fire occurred, and I am just now putting it all into words.  I do wish I would have written down my thoughts prior to this, but the raw emotion was difficult to touch.  The “FULL LENGTH” version complete with a lot of emotion is below, if you are inclined to read it.

The story was all over the world.
Here’s one sample from the New York Times: Rita Miljo, ‘the Mother Teresa of Baboons,’ Dies at 81

Late in the fire
FULL LENGTH
At C.A.R.E. we cook dinners communally each night, while breakfast and lunch are on-your-own.  Once the “Dinner!” call is shouted by the chef du nuit, we all trickle into the kitchen to serve ourselves buffet-style.  Melissa, a friend and fellow volunteer from Buffalo, NY, embarked upon the attempt to cook everyone a sit-down meal one Friday night: appetizers, salad, pasta with homemade spaghetti sauce simmered all afternoon, garlic bread, wine, and tiramisu for dessert.  We pushed our 3 big tables together for one grand family table for all 15 of us.  Everyone was in good spirits.  Some of us even put on nicer clothes in lieu of the standard ripped t-shirts and dirt-stained pants.  Dinner tasted great, but all of us together sharing, laughing and breaking bread was even better.  After dessert no one rushed off to bed, for smokes outside, or solitary to their room.  Melissa’s idea was a warm overwhelming success.


Open-air 'dining room' with the kitchen just to the right
It was about 8:15 pm.  Half of us were still sitting at the table, some were in the kitchen refilling their glasses, others were just standing around laughing.  The entire front of the downstairs Mountain Lodge houses an open air veranda with kitchen and tables.  We are caged in, yet totally open.  I chatted with Melissa at the table, looking slightly over my right shoulder into the night sky.  Something caught my eye.  What was that?  Something on the horizon that didn’t fit with the dark night.  Orange?  Moving?  RAGING?  Fire?  FIRE!!!  I processed those thoughts in milliseconds; my first response to Melissa was uttered nearly silently, “There’s a fire?  Melissa, there’s a fire!”  My voice amplified with each progressive statement as each alert to others was carried louder, increasingly, to all.  We have two main buildings; we were in one of them (“Mountain Lodge”), and the other one down the hill, the "Milk Kitchen."  The Milk Kitchen was desperately on fire.  It housed our clinic/hospital patients, surgery room, office and files, kitchen for 5 bottle shifts and food preparation each day, indoor sleeping cages for our two youngest troops of 35, and a small apartment on the second floor for the 81 year old founder, Rita Miljo, and 3 baboons.  Bobby, the baboon that started the entire sanctuary known as C.A.R.E., was housed upstairs with Rita.  Bobby, nearly a centenarian in baboon years, was inseparable to Rita, as Rita was inseparable to her.

From the bottom of the hill, looking up
In less than 30 seconds nearly everyone was dashing out of the Mountain Lodge, thoughts in a jumbled tumble.  I hesitated for a brief second and ran towards my room for my headlamp.  We all ran down the hill screaming with confusion, thoughts rushing, as we got closer to the monstrous flames engulfing the night sky.  Normally walking down the hill takes a few minutes during the day, but our feet danced and skipped over the ground.  I felt like I couldn’t move fast enough, and afraid that I would trip on one of the many large rocks in the road and tumble face first in my flip-flops.  Balancing speed with agility was precarious in the suddenly frenzied night. 

At the bottom of the hill, I initially saw no one, but I ran to a water hose that was not spouting water.  Dylan was near with a hose, I ran to him screaming while aiming the hose towards the flames, “What do we do?”  Dylan & I had to retreat from our close proximity, the flames were growing and the heat was magnifying.  I scream-cried and mumbled while realizing that my garden hose could not even lick the flames.  WHAT was happening?!  I started to wet the ground to limit the fire’s potential spread to the multitude of troop enclosures surrounding the Milk Kitchen.  Less than 1 minute later I saw Will run to my left, arms extended and latching onto something, about 20 feet away.  He was carrying baby baboons from the sleeping cages!

After a brief exchange that consisted of a few words, a few screams, and body language, I dropped the hose on the ground.  Suddenly I was dashing towards the main Milk Kitchen airlock and door.  I’m not sure that I comprehended anything other than there may still be babies inside, and that the flames were not so abusive that I couldn’t enter.  I hoped I could get to the sleeping cages; I had to do it fast and had to get out faster.  I saw only my goal, while avoiding the flames of death.  I hoped that the burning ceiling would not collapse on my head.  I was filled with fright.  Thank goodness for my headlamp as I quickly scanned all of the cages to find them empty.  Except one.  My fingers found the wires tying the cage door, and flung it open.  Four pairs of scared eyes hovered in the back corner of the small cage.  Noone came to me, too fearful to move.  Finally one jumped into my arms, Paul ran up behind me opening a side door to the sleeping cage room, grabbed more babies, and we ran away fast.

Rita's apt on the second floor obliterated (left side)

The rest of the night consisted of pure organized chaos, events that will forever be engrained in my memory.  Five us sat in the close outdoor baby enclosure with 35 babies and 1 large male baboon, “Milo,” whom was in the clinic for malnourishment and GI distress.  After a few moments this fully grown male wandered first to Haley sitting on the ground, then to Leigh-Anne, then to me sitting on a crate.  He sat between the fence and my crate while I scratched his back between the shoulder blades.  Not only did we have 2 entirely separate baby troops together, but we had an adult male with fully developed canines inside an area about 10’ x 16’.  The babies swarmed each of us, panic-driven and peeing and pooing from fright.  Scratching (mock-grooming) Milo’s back to keep him calm was added to my emergency priority list, along with watching the flames lick closer and closer to the dry surrounding trees.  When do we move?  What else must we do?  Do we release surrounding troops of baboons?  Some enclosures are VERY close to the house, literally 10 feet away. 

The roof of the Clinic
After what seemed like 30 minutes inside the hok with all of the babies, but was probably closer to less than 10 minutes, we made the decision to move.  We weren’t sure the likelihood of the fire catching to some of the very dry surrounding trees, but the odds were not getting better.  It is winter in South Africa, and more importantly dry season with most of the bush stripped of its healthy green cover.  En route to enclosures up the hill, a last minute decision was made to go to the Mountain Lodge.  The largest of all of the rooms, a 16’ x 16’ room was occupied by only 1 person, Melissa, during this volunteer-lean time.  Four beds, each enclosed in 1-man sleeping tents (alternative to mosquito netting), quickly became baboon play toys.  Everyone carried 1, 2, or 3 baboons up the hill; as we released each one they quickly hopped, jumped, and explored their new surroundings.  Melissa’s personal items were corralled as swiftly as possible while little hands started their dismantling and demolition.

Paulie, one of the 5 clinic patient survivors
More than 4 hours passed inside this room in the dark with a dim light from a flashlight.  I sat nearly motionless for 3.5 hours, vaguely cognizant of my surroundings.  Four volunteers were inside a bubble in the room, receiving updates every 30 minutes or hour:

“The small fire brigade has arrived… the fire is still fierce.”

“The large fire brigade and the two small have arrived… the fire is becoming controlled.”


“We’re thinking about moving the babies up the hill to the enclosures…”


“Is everyone ok in here?...”

The bottle making and food prep area, "Milk Kitchen"

Occasionally someone would stay for more than 15 minutes, but ultimately the madness of the room would drive each person out.  Consistently, only 4 or 5 of us never left except bathroom breaks.  It was solace, mayhem, confusion, torture, and misery.  After 3.5 hours, Brittany & I were told we needed to take a break and leave the room; we were the only 2 that hadn’t exited since we hurriedly carried the babies up the hill, not even a bathroom break.  We each resisted, probably afraid of digesting the unfolding scene outside of our four villainous walls.  Ultimately we both conceded our need and stepped out, but not before I had incurred a busted lip, bruised head, and bitten arms, hands and fingers.  The walk down the hallway was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever experienced.  I suddenly felt air rushing over my body, heard the wind thrashing through the night, and saw jackets blowing sideways.  Seemingly appearing out of nothing, the wind had taken over the night.  I’m not sure how I will ever get over those sounds, sensations and overwhelming feelings of the wind.


The rest of the night and the next day were filled with adrenaline and emergency mode response.  Carrying 150+ pound cages up the hill, sleeping less than 2 hours, making bottles in a daze, talking in a haze, and watching the building continue to burn in trickling flames.

What started the fire?  Unfortunately, it is not yet known how the fire started; it is still a mystery for C.A.R.E. and the police investigations team, and probably will never be known.  There is good knowledge of the general area of instigation: Potentially a faulty heater that Rita insisted upon for the 3 baboons that perished?  Potentially rats that chewed, and shorted, wires?  Potentially Rita left her gas cooking burner on?  Who knows?...

The Clinic's 150+ pound steel clinic cages melted from heat
During the week that followed, the haze and daze continued for all of us.  People kept arriving daily in vehicles carrying faces we had never seen.  Some bore medical supply donations, some bore food donations for the baboons, some had food and tissues donations for the volunteers.

Two weeks later I sat at my desk noticing the wind blowing the trees to and fro, gently reminded of wind in the darkness.  Four nights after the fire the wind suddenly started blowing; it sent shivers through my body.  It initially terrified me with flashbacks of walking out of the Baby Baboon Mayhem room down the hall into the darkness, challenged by reality and impracticality.  Now I'm getting to know the wind again.

One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.  Loren Eiseley
Rita & Bobby were buried together.
We each wrote our own personal
messages on their shared coffin.
Volunteers hand-in-hand walking down the hill to the funeral
RIP Rita Miljo "Mama Zimfene"
February 18, 1931 --- July 27, 2012


15 volunteers united in courage, strength, and bravery this night:   
Kelsey Callaghan
Samantha Dewhirst
Brittany DiFrancesco
Michaela Dunne
Dylan Fourie
Paul French
Jessie Furman
Melissa Grainger
Haley Hoffmann
Rebecca Jennings
Molly Jorges
Leigh-Anne Kolasinski
Stephen Munro
Will Stinson
Alex Weigel

3 comments:

  1. Holy crap! You are basically Batman.

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  2. Thank you Jessie, the beginning which tells of you not being able to put it into words is how I have felt. I often tried to write about it, but then had to brush it off and turn my thoughts away.
    Thank you Jessie for putting your experience into words, and for being there and being strong. Samantha

    ReplyDelete