As of late, his life can be best described as a country song, sung by the likes of Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. Yet, despite his losses, he walked in with a healthy smile and a warm handshake.
Sunday, Dec. 13, started out as a normal day. He knew he was going to be signing up for the Army National Guard that Wednesday with 31 Bravo Military Police. Monday he was going to see about his truck and a job. But that day, following a nap, Warsaw resident Alex Busse met up with a friend to go to Walmart and get the items they needed to make a gingerbread house.
“My father was in the Air Force for 23 years,” Busse said. “It’s a family thing, something I always wanted to do. I graduated from the Police Academy in March. My original plan was to go into the military for 20-some years, retire when I’m in my 40s and move on to a different career. But life took its own turn.”
Around the same time Busse and his friend were shopping, faulty wiring within the wall of Busse’s bedroom was smoldering; then a flame took hold. Neither Busse nor his roommate were aware of the faulty wiring as they carried on with their day. A neighbor, coming home from an errand, spotted the fire and called 9-1-1. Eight area fire departments descended on Farman Street around 1:30 in the afternoon.
“The funny thing is,” the 23-year-old said, “about five minutes before the call came in we were taking about fires. And then I heard the call. I had said to my friend, 'we gotta go, that’s my house.' "
While Busse isn’t a native of Warsaw, he has lived in the village for the past four years. Just three months after he and his family moved in, he joined the Warsaw Fire Department.
Busse was the first to enter the house, he knew the layout and the quickest way to the source of the flames. Then, their hose blew, the coupling came apart and the crew had to get out.
“At that point, I got sidelined,” Busse said. “It was just a regular fire until the chief sidelined me. That’s when it all hit and reality came into play; as I was standing there, watching my house burn. When I first entered my house, it wasn’t my house, I wasn’t playing that role, my goal was to put out the fire: firefighter first, renter second.”
Fire department policy discourages firefighters to fight fires if it happens to be their own home for several reasons – investigation, evidentiary, emotional, they all contribute to the emotional and mental health of the firefighter – it’s not only for their safety, but their fellow crew mates as well.
“When I got sidelined, I was pissed. I was so mad,” Busse said. “I was mad because it’s my house and I wanted to do something other than stand there and watch it burn, but I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t walk away. I just stood there.”
And Busse stood there for the entire six hours it took to get the blaze under control and finally out. Warsaw Assistant Fire Chief Joe Cummins led crews from Warsaw, Silver Springs, Wyoming, Perry, Perry Center, Gainesville, Castile, and Attica fire departments. Assisting at the scene included Wyoming County Emergency Services, the Warsaw Police Department, the Red Cross, and NYSEG. Standing by at empty fire stations were Varysburg, Pike and Pavilion fire departments.
“After the fire was out, I had gone in and just sat on the charred mattress and sat there and just took it in,” Busse said. “At that point I needed to be by myself. I didn’t go back to the fire house right away; as I sat there looking around I was just thinking 'It’s gone.' I looked around at the holes in the walls and just thought 'It’s all gone.'
“It’s hard. There are better days than others. You feel empty, lost. My roommate kept asking why, but there is no why, I asked the same question, too, but I’m never going to get an answer for it.”
Not only did Busse lose his house, during the course of the last three months, he has lost his job, which was seasonal, his truck, which needs major repairs, his dog got hit by a car and diedl and he and his girlfriend broke up.
“My mom said 'There’s really not much more you can lose. Either you have really bad voodoo or someone is going to make a country song out of your life.' I laugh at it. I have to. It’s either one way or the other. You have to find something to laugh at.
“My fire department and our friends have stepped up big time. There are so many people who have helped me out quite a bit. It’s been amazing to see, and that has given me a different perspective on things. It’s a giant family. A giant dysfunctional family at times, but it’s a giant family. Either you laugh or you cry. My brothers in the department keep saying 'We’ve got you, we’ve got you.' "
Busse put it like this: while one dog was lost in the fire, had the fire started 20 to 30 minutes earlier, things could have been different. Twenty minutes before the fire started, Busse was taking a nap. The fire started in his room, and where it started, it would have blocked his main means of escape.
“It started where the door was and where it was, it spread very quickly because the house is very old,” Busse said. “And I looked around my room afterward and there is only this little window I would have had to have fit through. If the fire started...even 20 minutes earlier... it could have been much worse.”
Yet, it’s the little things that one takes for granted that Busse realized as well.
“The other day when we were going through the house...I had forgot I put a small load of laundry in the dryer, and when I had looked, there were three shirts in there,” Busse said. “It was like Christmas. There were these three clean shirts. I had my own clothes to wear. It was amazing. It’s the little things like that that you wouldn’t think about; I was wearing other people's clothes. I just went out and bought this sweatshirt just to have something of my own.
“People keep asking me what I need. But I am so discombobulated at this time, I really don’t know what to say. I just need everything at this point...silly stuff you take for granted like a toothbrush and toothpaste.”
Busse has been replaying the fire in his mind, wondering how he missed the signs, how, with all his training, could he have not known something was wrong. And if he had noticed something was amiss or put two and two together, he said the outcome could have been very different. However, he had also said that with electrical fires, the wires could have been sparking for days or they could have smoldered for a day or two before the fire; and the longer they smolder, the hotter the fire can be.
“So many things were going through my head as I was watching the other firefighters work,” Busse said. “Anger. Frustration. Just the fact that it’s my house and I couldn’t even do anything. I was so mad at them (Warsaw Fire Department) at that time for pulling me off the fire. I was mad at myself as well, because at that point, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t because orders are orders whether I liked it or not. It was the chief’s decision to make and I understood why, but it still wasn’t an easy thing to do especially when I was already in the house and hitting the fire. Then I had got sidelined. Even if the hose didn’t bust, once I came out of the house I would have been sidelined.
“When I showed up, the smoke was coming out my back window, because I knew the layout of the house I knew the best approach to get to the fire,” Busse said. “When I walked in there, it wasn’t my house, it was a fire that I needed to put out and because I knew where I was going it was boom boom.
“We lost everything. My dresser was burnt to the ground. It was interesting to see though. Usually, in a fire, you go in put the fire out and your done. We don’t generally see the aftermath. It’s like, 'OK, the fire is out and now it’s time to jump in the truck and go home take a shower and put on clean clothes.' Not this time, I had no home to go home to.
“In one aspect, it’s a learning experience. I can go in see where the fire started, see where the char marks are, all that different kind of stuff that you normally don’t get to see when it’s not your house. It taught me a lot to see the spread pattern, how it spread and how it hit the rafters.”
Once a fire gets into the walls, it has free reign, Busse said. Once it’s in the walls and in the rafters, there are no barriers, and in a two-story home, the flames went up and down and spread quickly.
Busse tries not to focus on the loss, instead, he has a mantra “It is what it is, s**t happens.” However, his loss encompasses childhood memories and everything that he acquired during his high school years in New Jersey. Busse was into sports and was also in the junior reserves.
“I was angry at the time,” Busse said. “The best I can say when people ask me how I’m doing, is 'I’m breathing.' It hits you at times, but I’m breathing and that’s the best I can do right now. That, and start picking up the pieces; taking baby steps, one day at a time, looking for a place to live, a job, getting my truck fixed.
“I had this old box with cards...birthday, Christmas cards...they go back to when I was 7-8 years old. I try not to focus on it. Life is going to throw punches at you. Honestly, this isn’t the worst thing that’s happened in life, at least no one was there at the time of the fire.”
For now, Busse said it’s going to take time to dust off the ashes and pick himself up. However, being this close to Christmas, makes it that much harder.
“All the gifts I had bought are gone,” Busse said. “I had bought them early, while I was working, but now they are all gone. While people say that it’s just possessions, it’s just possessions. It’s not just possessions, no matter what anybody says. Some things just cannot be replaced. No matter how hard you try, pictures and such, there’s no replacing that stuff. Yes, you will always have the memories, but there isn’t anything tangible.
“I had a memory book that was my senior year project, dating back to when I was born,” Busse said. “There were pictures and notes and it was signed by the whole class. It is no more. It’s stuff like that that isn’t replaceable. So right now, I’m focusing on just breathing and taking things day to day.”
Busse said his roommate is doing all right and is staying with her boyfriend in Perry.
“No matter how many people are around me or how awesome my brothers in the department are, there are times where you still feel completely alone in what you are doing,” Busse said. “That’s the hardest part to deal with. Miranda has her boyfriend and I stand back and still feel very alone. But the nights, when it’s quiet and dark and the thoughts just take over, that’s the worst.”
Today however, Busse said he was doing “all right” and while he doesn’t know where he is going to lay his head for the night, he does have one Christmas wish:
“What I want for Christmas. I want to see my roommate back on her feet and happy. If I can see her happy and smiling and having a good Christmas. That would be it for me.”
The Warsaw Fire Department hosted a benefit at the fire hall Dec. 19. For more information on how to help Busse call (585) 786-2468.