The night of March 9, 1956 was frigid. The ground immediately around Shadowbrook was hard with frost and harder with decorative stonework. The eaves were hung with icicles; the gutters slick with dead leaves. Some windows were painted shut and others were frozen shut.
At 12:30 a.m. fire broke out. There were 21-gallon cans of paint stacked in a back hallway and two oil storage tanks. In a literal flash, localized fire became an all-consuming conflagration. The second largest private home in America was being reduced to ashes; 126 lives were at risk.
We Americans seem preoccupied with heroes. We are devotees of the action flick. On screen, the hero does a series of highly improbable even foolhardy things. Rather than ending in intensive care, our hero ends by saving the day and kissing the girl.
Newscasts scour the country searching for real-life heroes. Examples include a child dialing 911; a fireman or policeman doing his job, or a passerby jumping in the water and saving a stranger.
We may be fascinated by heroes; however, we do not seem to have a definition of heroism. Which behavior is heroic; which is responsible or compassionate; which is daring, and which is dumb?
In his book, "The Shadowbrook Fire," (Elephant Tree Press, 1956) F.X. Shea records the events of March 9, 1956. Meticulously, and minute by minute, Shea tells us what the 126 residents of Shadowbrook do; what the 16 priests, 10 brothers, and 100 students do faced with death by fire. Taken together the examples define heroism.
Awakened out of sound sleep by smoke and the eerie noise of fire "eating" the house, almost every priest acts first to wake and warn the others even when that means staggering blindly through smoke-choked corridors.
At the top of the house, the priest in charge of the novices justifies a white lie. He knows different but tells the students the fire is small and contained. His courage in maintaining a calm demeanor in the face of disaster saves lives. Almost 100 students move to safety quickly and quietly without panic or stampede. The students sleeping in another room find their descent much more harrowing, and in one case, fatal.
Try and imagine a house the size of Shadowbrook all at once plunged into darkness; imagine being blind in a cavernous smoke-filled building. Many become disoriented. Others delay running to safety in order to find and help them; they can do so only by groping and shouting. People four feet away are invisible.
One priest gains the exit by crawling on his belly below the smoke line only to turn back into the house. He realizes someone must inform police and fire departments. He goes in search of the telephone. No one knows how many lives he saves by his action but it costs him his.
Outside a priest reaches out and asks, "Pray with me, brother. There are those here tonight who need our support."
Shoeless in thin pajamas, the priest wishing to pray for others is lying on the ground with a broken back. He is waiting for a pill to ease the pain, a stretcher to carry him without further injury, an ambulance to take him to warmth and help. He is waiting patiently for things that will never come.
When all around him are struggling to get out of the building, one brother runs back in. Darting through fire-torn corridors, he tries to shut off the feed lines from the oil tanks to furnaces in hopes of avoiding an explosion. He does this because tending the furnaces is his job. He can only reach one.
Afterward, the same brother is seen searching the ashes, burning his hands and feet, in an attempt to recover the bones of those who died. He wants to assure that there is something to bury. Only a small heap is recovered.
Overhead a priest forces a window open so a "rope" of bed sheets can be dropped. He tells four men to go ahead of him while he holds the window. They escape but the priest’s hands are so badly burned by the charred window that he cannot hold onto the sheets. A man comes back to help him jump. Forty feet below, four others hold a blanket to catch them; both survive.
These are not the Hollywood visuals of shoot-em-ups and car chases, bloodshed and revenge; these are not the acts of muscle-bound men. These are what pale priests in thin pajamas choking down fear did in the midst of tragedy and because of what they did, of the 126 residents, only 4 died.
These men were fearful but not paralyzed by fear; concerned for themselves yet able to help others; shocked in the face of complete destruction yet still able to behave constructively. Unassuming people compelled to do the right thing against great odds, in short, heroes.
The story of that night is horrifying in the telling, but there is comic relief. My favorite is the image of two priests hot-wiring a truck. All in a good cause, of course, but still, it survives as an amusing image.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.