The Survivors is a five-part podcast series produced by NFPA underscoring the aftermath of a family who lost two children in a home fire

Winner: 2018 EXCEL Gold Award, Association Media & Publishing, Podcast (Educational)

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The van Dijk’s emotional scarring from the fire seems to have taken a larger toll on the family than their physical injuries. They learn new coping tactics, as have many others impacted by home fire, but everyday has its challenges.       

By Fred Durso, Jr.

I slowly approach the site as if approaching a cemetery; out of respect for what happened here and what was lost, I turn the car radio down and keep quiet. The plot of land I’m in front of sits at the convergence of two roads, one of them being the main road heading into Lander, maybe a five-minute drive from here to the center of town. Besides the rumbling of the occasional 18-wheeler or chirp from a cricket, it’s quiet. Peacefully quiet. There’s no home here anymore, no family of seven. Just brown weeds and brush filling the plot of land where five, vibrant kids once played.

I hop out of my rental car and take in the silence. The warm, August breeze and sun add to the serenity I’m feeling. Across the street are seven horses on an adjacent property, two of them right at the front of a fence closest to the road. They’re staring at me. It’s as if they’re also paying respects to Zephy and Noah. Or, they’re acting as guardians to the plot of land and want to keep their eyes on this stranger who just approached it. In their subtle way, it’s as if they’re telling me to back off.

Not too far from me is a large, rectangular board brightening up the plot of land. Its blue background resembles the sky, and there are two rainbows, one on top of the other, extending from one end of the board to the other. Filling the space around the rainbows are a couple hundred multicolored handprints—red, green, purple, blue—placed there by local children. Two, wooden crosses rest near the memorial, as do statues of angels. 

Memorial for the van Dijk children

The memorial at the site of the old van Dijk home 

If there is such a thing as closure, one step toward it for the van Dijk’s was to remove a visible, yet painful, reminder. The home’s charred remnants sat on this property soon after the fire, and became a constant source of anxiety. A family friend had the necessary equipment and secured the manpower to demolish it. They got to work three months after the fire. In a symbolic gesture, Noelle operated an excavator and tour down the first wall--one of the walls to the couple’s bedroom--and Feike demolished the other wall, which was to the boys’ bedroom. 

“The house, it was just a symbol of death,” says Feike. “Tearing it down … I wouldn’t say it’s closure, but it was a relief … that we could tear it down ourselves.”  

The teardown was the start of a series of acts by the van Dijk’s to aid their emotional strife, which seemed like a longer process to heal than their physical injuries. Some in grief bury their problems, others abuse substances to dull the pain. This family did something harder; they focused on themselves and fought through their pain. Not doing so would fly in the face of their life’s new purpose. 

Back inside the van Dijk’s home, I need to know why this family didn’t book it out of Lander after the fire. With memories of the boys all around them, why stay?  

Wilderness near old van Dijk home

Wilderness near the old van Dijk home

“I was the one that actually initiated and said [we need to stay],” says Feike. “We need to fight this. We need to fight these emotions. We need to work through them. I mean, if you run away from it, it eventually will come on your path again. The best and the fastest way to heal of these wounds is by fighting it instead of running away.”  

The couple admits that therapy and prescribed medication have helped. “It is a cocktail of medication, and I can't wait to be done with it and taper it off,” says Feike. 

However, the medications aren’t a cure-all. 

“Because all of a sudden you're like, oh my God, my kids are dead, my kids are dead, my kids are dead,” says Noelle. “Every single day, asking myself probably 1,000 times a day if I was going to make it through the next second. And so that's kind of the situation. Feike and I were roughed up. We were tarnished. We had to clean those areas.” 

Helping to ensure the family stays intact was the staff at the Salt Lake City burn center. I also pay them a visit while out West to get a clearer picture of who they are and what they do.  

Fred Durso, the reporter for "The Survivors," in Lander, Wyoming

Fred Durso, the reporter for "The Survivors," in Lander, Wyoming

I meet one of counselors at the burn center who had tended to Feike and his son, Remmy, when they were admitted. Kristen Quinn is now a psychosocial program coordinator at the center, but was doing patient care when Feike and Remmy were there in 2014. A counselor’s role initially is to assess the patient by understanding their mental health and their current support system. They then take all of that information and assess how to best support the patient’s emotional needs. 

“I think what I would recall the most about Feike is ... him saying, ‘I need support. My wife needs help. We need different help.’ He had an awareness that not everybody has,” says Quinn. 

The emotional healing didn’t end once the family left the burn center. The staff made sure they were linked with support and resources available by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. I ask Amy Acton, the organization’s executive director: Why burn survivor and not burn victim?

“Connotations of victims make us feel less then and we have no power over what happens to us,” says Acton. “On a deeper level, there’s a realization, ‘I started out as a victim.’ If most people have a burn experience, they are there for a period of time feeling like you’re a victim of something. What comes overtime is realizing you have survived and the strengths that you can build from that experience can help you thrive in life.”

Acton explains that finding a new normal stars with seeking support from others that have gone through a similar journey. “We believe wholeheartedly in peer support,” she says. “If you realize that you’re not the only one that has experienced something, it provides a perspective that you don’t have otherwise. If you’re in your own experience, you don’t see the potential or possibilities.” 

The van Dijk’s agreed to another form of peer networking offered by the burn center. Its burn camp is a wilderness trips set over a series of days, devoid of any technology. “We really like the outdoor therapy component,” says Brad Wiggins, the center’s nurse manager who oversees its burn camp program. “We think taking people away from their cell phones and away from their life and putting them in the woods with other people who really understand what's going on is a really productive thing. It lends itself to a lot of positive reflection. It lends itself to a lot of personal thought, and it lends itself to an interest in making yourself a better person when you're out there in the woods.” 

I ask the couple why they chose to attend burn camp. It’s immediately apparent that Feike seemed more gung-ho about it. “We need time together, Noelle and I, to talk, to learn, to live, to laugh, to cry,” he says. “I think this will be really good for us.” 

"I just knew I needed to get through the next few months, and it did not involve joining this crusade of going down the Moab River,” says Noelle. “But let me tell you that Feike was right. There's a point where we have to kind of step back and say, whether I like it or not, I'm part of this wounded warriors club. My club involves fire.” 

The couple discusses some of the more impactful aspects of burn camp. One involved painting a river that symbolized their life. 

“You end up mapping these weird inlets and outlets, and then they ask you to bring watercolor into it and bring your colors through it," says Noelle. "You realize that this is what I started out with; this is what I overcame. These were my goals before the fire, my goals after the incident. And then what does my river look like down the road? That was probably the hardest. I don't know. I'm not ready to go there. I have no idea. I'm not sure while I'm still here. A lot of people have that feeling of survivors' guilt. But if you don't acknowledge that, it’s like a deep, secret alley that when you run into rejection and triggers later, if it's still there and you haven't dealt with that weed in your garden, it's growing. It will choke out things that are really important." 

Another activity involved taking a rock symbolizing emotional baggage and tossing it into the water. “For me, [the rock] was my guilt, my guilt for not being capable of saving my children,” says Feike. "Because that was still haunting me. That was still attacking me on a daily basis, and I wanted to leave that behind.”

Burn camp, like therapy and medication, wasn’t a cure-all. But slowly for the couple, the tactics they learned helped temper their dark feelings. 

“There will always be something in your life that you have to overcome,” says Noelle. “It's going to be traumatic. May not be two kids in a burning building. But as far as your purpose afterwards, it took even more to build myself up. I still need not only to be here for these other kids, but I survived for a reason. I don't know what that reason is. 
“My longing now is to survive these children to where they can be successful, independent people and go home, be in a place that this kind of pain isn't happening.” 

For Feike, his life’s new purpose is to honor Zephy and Noah. In doing so, Feike shocks me by telling me his new path places him directly into places that altered his life to begin with—burning homes. 

The story continues. Listen to Episode 4: Back Into the Lion's Den. 

Fred Durso, Jr., is communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative. The Survivors" is produced by the National Fire Protection Association in cooperation with the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

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