Lightning flashed through the darkness over Donald Lubeck’s bedroom skylight. Before the 80-year-old retired international aid worker could count “one thousand one,” he was shaken by a blast of thunder. It was 11 p.m. The storm had moved directly over his two-story wood home in the rural town of Belchertown, Massachusetts. Then he heard the smoke alarm beeping. Lubeck padded down the stairs barefoot to investigate; he opened the door to the basement, and flames exploded out.
The sudden gust from the doorway instantaneously created an inferno from a smoldering fire, most likely caused by lightning, in the basement fuse box. His face and hair singed, Lubeck fled back upstairs to call 911 from his bedroom. “I felt safe because the room had a separate outdoor stairway,” he explains. “I was counting on that.”
But the phone didn’t work, and when Lubeck tried to go down the exterior stairway, he was stopped by a wall of flames. “I started panicking,” he says.
Lubeck realized he was trapped. His daughter and young granddaughters, who lived with him, were away for the night. No one will even know I’m home, he thought. His house was three miles off the main road and so well hidden by pines that Lubeck knew calling for help would be fruitless.
“I could hear the fire moving through the house—boom, crash, bang, boom—and you know it’s coming for you,” Lubeck says. “The thing that got me was to die alone. Not to say goodbye to someone.”
Up a hill about a third of a mile away lived Lubeck’s closest neighbors, Jeremie Wentworth and his wife. Wentworth had been lying down listening to crickets chirping when it occurred to him that the sound was more like a smoke detector. He jumped out of bed, grabbed a cordless phone and a flashlight, and headed down the hillside toward the noise. That’s when he saw the roiling mountain of black smoke.
He dialed 911, then called out, “Is anyone there?” as he approached the house. Wentworth knew that Lubeck lived in the house, and the two men were friendly.
Then he heard, “Help me! I’m trapped!” coming from the balcony off Lubeck’s bedroom. On the phone, the 911 dispatcher warned Wentworth not to enter the house. “But there was no way I was going to listen to Don scream and die in that fire,” he says. “I told the dispatcher, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m going in.’”
Inside the house, windows shattered all around him. “I was yelling, ‘Don, where are you?’ Then I had to run outside to catch my breath.”
After one more attempt inside the house, he gave up and circled around back. The wind parted the black smoke just enough for him to glimpse Lubeck on the second-floor balcony. But there was no way to get to him. “I shined the flashlight into the woods next to an old shed and noticed a ladder,” says Wentworth. He dragged it over to the balcony and pulled Lubeck down just as the second floor of the house collapsed.
Within the year, Lubeck and his family built a new two-story wood house at the site of the fire. Wentworth and Lubeck don’t run into each other regularly, butLubeck now knows that if he ever needs help, Wentworth will be there.
Lubeck still chokes up when he tells the story. “I was alone,” he says. “Then I heard the most beautiful sound in my life. It was Jeremie.”