We slept in until 10:30AM this morning. My folks and I got dressed in the nice but dark clothes one generally wears to funerals, and headed out to get a late breakfast at a nearby diner. We drove through the tiny town of Bascom to get to Hopewell-Loudon, the school where almost every Rainey in Ohio graduated high school. Jim and Jodi’s oldest child Austin had only graduated this year. Cody had just started the 10th grade, and Jessica was a first grader.
The service wasn’t until 3PM, but we came early because there was “a visitation” in the gym from 10AM to 3PM. I’d never heard of a visitation before, and my mom suggested they must be calling it that because a formal viewing would have been impossible. The fire that killed the Raineys was so hot firefighters hadn’t even been able to enter the building when they arrived. It was hours before they were able to recover the bodies. With the exception of Austin, all the family members had to be identified using dental records.
We pulled up to the school and found a firefighter in uniform directing traffic. As Sue had instructed the night before, we told her we were with the family and would be in the procession to the gravesite later. She pointed us in the right direction, and we parked in a line of cars right outside the gymnasium. We followed a line of Hopewell-Loudon marching band members in formation as they entered. The lobby was full of flowers and photo boards, as well as a therapy dog that had been visiting with students all week. Flowers and gifts had come from every corner of the community: the auto shops, the Wells Fargo employees, the firefighter’s union Austin had only just joined. The marching band went into the gym and to the front to play a song in remembrance before taking their seats in the bleachers. A single casket was near the front, the remains of the entire family hidden inside. My parents and I said hello to Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob, then we put our coats on a few of the chairs reserved for family. I’m really sick of having reserved seats at funerals.
The next two hours were a mix of looking at photos and re-introducing ourselves to distant relatives. All around us people were wearing matching navy blue t-shirts with the firefighter logo and the hashtag #RaineyStrong on the back. Austin was a cadet for the Bascom Volunteer Fire Department, but they treated him as though he were any other fallen firefighter. Austin died just two weeks before he was supposed to take his exam. My dad got the phone number for the woman who organized the t-shirts. He’s hoping to get us each one when she does the second order.
Though there were five clergy members leading it, the service lasted no more than an hour. We listened to scripture and sang a few hymns. They played a video of little Jessica performing a dance she learned for one of her Vacation Bible School songs. At the end, what appeared to be the entire fire department stood up and came to the front. They ceremonially draped an American flag over the casket and gave a salute. The fire chief came to the microphone to narrate the bell ceremony. For each bell rung he listed a different significant date in Austin’s life: the day he was born, the day he was called to serve, and the day of “the last call he answered.”
The line of cars in the procession was very long, led by several firetrucks. They also had a yellow school bus and a transport bus for the Seneca County Opportunity Center in the line, as Jodi had been a driver for both. At the very end was a bright green tractor.
A sharp chill had come up by the time we got to the cemetery. They’d set up the casket underneath a small blue canopy, but it could barely fit a third of the guests in attendance. It was a good excuse to crowd in close to combat the cold. All of the firefighters were still with us, surrounding the group on all sides. The priest performed a short gravesite ceremony, and the firefighters folded the flag and gave it and a second flag to the paternal and maternal grandparents.
Next came a loud sound, like an alarm. Then beeping and ringing. It was coming from the radios of the firefighters, all of which had been turned on. There was the sound of static, then a female dispatcher’s voice, clear and orderly:
“This is Seneca County calling number 69, Austin Rainey.”
More static. I heard the whole crowd intake breath at once, and we all began to quietly weep. There was a very, very long silence.
“This is Seneca County calling number 69, Austin Rainey.”
Static. Silence. More loud beeps to call to attention.
“Attention all units, I regret to inform you that Austin Rainey has answered his last and final call on this earth.”
She said his badge number, 69, would be retired. It was now a memorial to him. I looked over to my left and saw a young man, not much older than Austin would have been, with goosebumps all up his arms from standing in his firefighter short sleeve dress shirt. He had tears on his face.
After the service my parents and I drove over to see the burned down house, just a minute or two away from Bob and Sue’s house. They had to erect a chain link fence around it because there are ongoing investigations into the cause of the fire, and to keep people from hurting themselves trying to get close to the wreckage. As bad as I thought the house might be, it was worse. It was just a shell of a home, charred black, with half the walls and none of the roofs. The stairs were still there but most of the second floor was not. Many of the possessions had been completely destroyed, but some were surprisingly intact. There was the melted remains of an oven, half of a sleeping bag, and an entire pumpkin from the porch.
We went over to Sue and Bob’s for a large meal with the family. I spent some time cuddling with a few babies, my most distant relations. Aunt Sue gave one of the little girls a bucket Jessica used to use to store her crayons at their house. My cousin Andrew said he never understood how a heart as big as Cody’s could fit in his small chest. My Great Uncle John made fun of my Great Uncle Carl for only being his half brother instead of a full sibling like my grandfather. My cousin Matt asked if I was going to wait another ten years before I came back to see them. I ate two servings of spaghetti and way too many chocolate peanut butter bars.
I never had a chance to meet Jessica in person, because she was born after the last time I visited. I have been repeating a memory in my head from the last time I was in Ohio. It was the time my grandfather, Uncle Bob, Jim, Jodi, Austin, Cody and I had to chase a mother duck and her ducklings into the pen for the night. Aunt Sue was laughing at us from the deck because of how terrible we were at it. I wished Jessica had been alive for that. I wished she was a part of that memory.
I saw Jessica’s birthdate listed under one of her photos at the gym. I did the backwards math to that moment in the backyard with the ducks. Eight and a half months. I can’t know for sure, but I think Jessica was there.
So sorry for this loss and thank you for sharing this retelling of your journey to tell them goodbye. I’ll hug my little closer tonight.
There just arent words. You’ve said them all beautifully. Thanks for sharing this with us and again I’m just so sorry.
Wishing your family God’s Comfort & Peace in dealing with this terrible tragedy. Hopefully the outpouring of support and prayers will sustain you all.
Jim & Eileen
I was okay up to the part about the radio call and then sat here and blubbered at my computer, unable to read on due to the tears in my eyes. Our prayers are with you and your family.