December 15th 1993 had begun at the Governor’s Mansion with our two oldest sons preparing for high school and leaving early. Our two elementary children were off to school shortly after. The Mansion staff concluded their duties preparing the Formal Dining Room for a media breakfast and when the members of the press had enjoyed their exchange with the governor, Mike headed to the State Capitol to deliver a budget speech at noon.
Holiday entertaining was at its peak. The night before, a Christmas celebration was held in the ballroom with over a hundred Cabinet Council and Governor’s Office staff enjoying a buffet, music, and visiting. Once again a large crowd would be hosted in the beautifully decorated Ballroom for the Holiday Mansion Foundation’s Artists Series highlighted with a musical program. The Mansion ballroom seemed the perfect venue for such festive occasions.
I planned to drive to the Capitol and join Mike at noon as he made his Budget Address to the Legislature. Westin, our three-year-old had settled in to watching a favorite video in the family room on the second floor and I took a few moments to walk through the parlor and dining room on the first floor checking the scene for our next event. The Mansion was in its finest with the colorful Christmas decorations. Poinsettias lining the carved wooden staircase up to the third floor, garlands on the fireplace mantles, and the large fresh blue spruce Christmas tree in the Grand Hall made the residence spectacular. The Mansion had been open to the public in the afternoon every day the week before for holiday tours. Glorious sights and sounds of Christmas music filled the impressive structure while musical groups performed carols doing the tour hours.
Judith George and Carol Bench, the Mansion office staff, informed me that two men had arrived for the purpose of checking the fire alarm system. Two other maintenance men had also come to do some work on the furnace in the basement. Lauralee Hill, Mansion assistant, was in the 2nd floor kitchen as I went in to the master bedroom to change from my casual clothes into my suit before traveling up Capitol Hill.
I heard a strange noise just outside the open bedroom door. The sound came from just below the oval opening overlooking the first floor grand hall. I stepped out and looked over the wood railing to see a shocking sight- a fire racing up the 22 foot Christmas tree! The thought popped in to my mind, “What have those crazy fire alarm men done!” I instantly yelled, “ Fire!”
I heard Carol Bench calling out from the first floor, “Get out, get out, get out!” I ran toward the family room calling out, “Westin Westin…” He came directly in to the hall and I swooped him up. Hearing the commotion, Lauralee ran in to the hallway.
“There’s a fire! Run,” I said. The three of us hurried down the back stairway in seconds. At the bottom of the stairs I handed Westin to Lauralee and grabbed two coats from the closet, throwing one to Lauralee to wrap around the two of them. We ran past the office reaching the back door of the Mansion. Judith, Carol, and the two alarm men quickly fell in line behind us and I yanked on the door.
Carol’s yells of “ Get out, get!” alerted Judith who placed a call to 911 before joining us at the back door. Carol happened to be walking through the Grand Hall when the fire actually began; she heard the popping noise and saw the sparks that ignited the tree. The speed with which the fire lept up the tree made it absolutely impossible for her to get an extinguisher or do anything to halt the burst of flames exploding up the tall tree.
I pulled forcefully on the Mansion’s back door, but it would not budge. The powerful suction of the air affected by the flames which had now burst from the tree on the first floor up to the third floor dome, caused a powerful back draft. The 2 men at the rear, quickly came forward and together were able to pull it open. A loud “whoosh” of air blew by us as we ran out and the door slammed shut with a “bang.”
We stood together in the parking lot looking in shock at the home, when someone asked, “Is everyone out?” In just a moment, two men emerged who had been in the basement. Luckily they were near the back stairway and saw smoke, so ran out the door.
We exchanged anxious words as smoke poured from the windows. Finally the fire engines arrived and the men began their task.
I asked Lauralee to take little Westin to her apartment to spare him the frightening sight. Mike arrived at the scene and the group of us moved to the larger east parking lot to give the firemen more space and be at a safe distance. It was clear the fire had spread throughout the home. At the Capitol, Mike had been told by a member of his security detail, that there had been a small fire on the 2nd floor of the mansion, but it had been extinguished. He was grateful he had left immediately to check out the report, for the fire was far different than first thought and the firemen were having a difficult time containing the blaze.
Mike and I felt the 4 children at school should be brought to us because reporters were breaking the news of the disaster. As the rest of our family arrived, our group moved in to the Arts Council building for refuge and privacy. The media and large crowds of people were lined up outside to behold the blaze.
Through the frustration and loss, Mike continued to give focus to the blessing that no one was hurt. This was the 1 bright thought for all of us. Mike & I drew the children close to us. He quietly encouraged them: “Everyone is safe. No one was hurt. You can always replace things.”
When the fire was out, the fire chief came to give a dreary report. Though the building’s interior was a loss, we were heartened that the walls stood firm. Mike went with the fire chief to get a view of the extent of the damage. Before he left us, he received a request from the children to retrieve the Karl Malone basketball shoes from the boys’ room. When they returned, he held the blackened shoes and mom’s smoky purse.
With the flames extinguished, it was the appropriate time for the family to go outside and meet with the press. We shared our thoughts and the experience with them.
Next we needed to face the task of assembling the “things” needed for our family to be able function. Before Mike left to go the Capitol and deliver his budget speech, we outlined a plan to purchase everything from pajamas to toothpaste. He handed us his credit cards and the family was on our way.
The following day, the mansion staff and I began the chore of going through the charred smoky remains of the office and private quarters. Many professionals were utilized to assess the extent of the damage and how this historic home could be restored. Architects, uniquely skilled craftsman, and committee members dedicated themselves to this 2 1/2 year project. It became very apparent to us the great love people had for the historic Governor’s Mansion.
After our family spent three days at a hotel and six weeks at a rented condominium, we were able to settle back in to our private residence bringing a sense of calm and routine. Mike and I both absolutely agree what made this difficult experience move smoothly was the support and help of others gave, along with the prayers that were offered.
It was the summer of 1996 before the restoration was completed. A month of public tours was planned and once again the people of Utah witnessed the grandeur and splendor of the Utah Governor’s Mansion.
|FIRE DAMAGES HISTORIC GOVERNOR’S MANSION
BLAZE COULD HAVE BEEN REAL TRAGEDY, PROBERS SAY
LEAVITT FAMILY FINDS LITTLE TO SALVAGE AS THEY SIFT THROUGH BELONGINGS
LOSS IS A BLOW TO EX-FIRST LADY
LEAVITT WANTS AGENCY TO REPORT ABOUT TREE
LESSONS FROM THE MANSION FIRE
MEMO CITED NEED FOR FLAME RETARDANT
FIRST FAMILY FINDS SHELTER AT S.L. HOTEL
EXTENSION CORD BLAMED FOR FIRE
LEAVITTS’ DIGNITY SETS FINE EXAMPLE
UTAH MAKES A LIST AND CHECKS IT TWICE: ARE THESE CHRISTMAS TREES,
LIGHTS NAUGHTY OR NICE?
LEAVITTS GIVE DONATIONS TO HOMELESS COMMUNITY
REPORT BLAMES FIRE ON 3 WORKERS, FAULTY PROCEDURES
GOVERNOR’S MANSION STILL ON THE MEND
COSTLY FIRE REPAIRS INFLAME CRITICS
GOOD AS OLD: LEAVITT HAILS RESTORATION AS GOVERNOR’S MANSION GETS READY FOR PUBLIC VIEW
UTAH GOVERNOR’S MANSION TURNING INTO MONEY PIT