One TV station called it “the fire that burnt a hole in the community.” Other news outlets focused on the flames and destruction.
The home’s setting seemed to intensify the drama unfolding on TV. The 1,200-square-foot house was near acres of land and only a couple businesses. One camera operator took a wide shot of the fire and captured black smoke billowing in one direction for what seemed like miles and miles across Wyoming’s open terrain. That far back, the scene closely resembled the site of a catastrophic plane crash. When the TV cameras zoomed in, flames spilled out of the home with a roaring intensity.
Once the fire department did their job, the aftermath was evident; the log cabin’s metal roof, all twisted and contorted into pieces, filled the interior of what was left of the home’s charred walls.
And there was something worse, reported the news. Two children, a four- and two-year old, were inside the home at the time of the fire. They had died from the incident. Other members of the family were significantly injured.
Feike van Dijk (left) and Noelle holding twins Ephraim ("Remmy") and Sabine ("Beanie"). (From right of Noelle) Zephan, Noah, and Able. Zephan and Noah lost their lives in a 2014 home fire.
What happened in this Wyoming town is happening frequently across America. Home is where American fires wreak the most havoc. Eighty percent of all fire deaths each year happen at home, killing seven people each day and injuring 13,000 others, according to the National Fire Protection Association. I know these numbers are important, and point to a big problem, but these stats say little about the people they represent. Or what their life is now like. Or how, in the case of this Wyoming fire, a family is able to cope with the reality of losing two kids in such a horrific manner.
I wanted the story that goes beyond the statistics, the story of what happens after TV cameras leave the scene of a home fire to cover the next big thing. I wanted to meet the people left in fire’s wake and understand their new normal, see if they are still plagued by their past, or if they’ve been able to find some peace.
I figure this out firsthand out when I decide to head to Lander, Wyoming, and visit the family who had lost their two kids in that Wyoming fire in 2014. That year, there were more than 367,000 home fires in America. This is the story of what followed one of them.
I make the trek to Lander by way of Salt Lake City. Once leaving the Utah city, I encounter sheer nothingness for miles. Fences separate the road from Wyoming’s vast expanse, dotted with wildlife. I see signs that fill me with equal parts humor and dread. “Caution,” says one of them. “Antelope entering the highway at 55 miles per hour.”
The closer we get to Lander, life and scenery start emerging. The flatlands turn to mountains, and the sun gleams on gorgeous, red rock canyons in the distance. Heading out of town are a series of RVs, likely leaving the area after watching a solar eclipse the day prior. Lander and the surrounding areas were directly in the path of totality. We then approach the town’s centerpiece, Main Street, where a big sign promotes the upcoming Jurassic Classic, a mountain bike festival. I can’t get over the number of diverse stores for such a small town—an art gallery, a few chains, a movie theater, quilt store, shoe shop, and something called “The Golden Zipper.”
Red rock canyons near Lander, Wyoming
I find the family’s home not too far off Main Street and meet Feike, a brawny, six-foot-tall, 37-year-old man with a shaved head, some scruff, and a mild Dutch accent. I ask the Dutchman, originally from the town of Almelo in the Netherlands, how we wound up in the U.S. Starting in the late ’90s and over the course of eight years, he took part in Christian missionary work in the states while living with different foster families.While this was happening, Feike eventually joined a Christian contemporary rock group, Holy Fire, as its percussionist. They toured the U.S. and Europe. That’s when he met his wife, Noelle, in 2003 during a gig in New Haven, Connecticut. "When somebody introduced her to me … I pretty much said, 'Hey, I love your hair,'” says van Dijk. Eventually, he adds, Nicole, the “groupie,” fell in love with the drummer and vice versa.
The couple kept a long-distance romance going for about two years, which included the occasional trip to see each other. Noelle would visit Feike in the Netherlands, and Feike Noelle when he returned to the states every few months. By 2006, the distance apart became too hard, and the couple married. They had a ceremony in the Netherlands, and another soon after on the beach in Madison, Connecticut. The couple stayed in New England for three years after the wedding. Both worked at a group home assisting adults with disabilities. Their first child, Abel, was born in 2008. Having a kid also reshaped their aspirations, which led them to Wyoming, where Noelle had once lived.
“We started questioning what's important to us,” says Noelle. “What was important to us was taking advantage of being out in Wyoming while we are here, because we always had this idea we were going to leave and go someplace else. And taking advantage of that was forging and living off the land. That was really important to us.”
Within seven years, the couple had four additional kids: Zephan (nicknamed “Zephy”), Noah, and two twins, Sabine (“Beanie”) and Ephraim (“Remmy”).
Pillow featuring members of the van Dijk family
“Everything was good,” says Feike. “Everything was great. Loved my job. I really felt that I was doing the right thing.”
After a pretty uneventful workday in 2014, Feike heads to the grocery store and picks up steaks at Noelle’s request. When he gets home, he marinates them before feeding the twins, who are nine months old at the time and in highchairs in the kitchen. He then hears his oldest son, Abel, scream. “Dad there’s smoke outside!”
Feike heads to the front door. He sees smoke and assumes it’s just exhaust from a diesel truck. But he notices a nearby flag waving intently in the ferocious wind and thinks maybe it’s something else. He then sees fire near the front door and runs to grab a fire extinguisher.
"I run up to the cabinet to grab the fire extinguisher, kick the door open,” he says. “The heat did knock me back. That was the moment that all the heat came into the house and I turned back and said, “Noelle we need to get out of here.”
Feike grabs Remmy out of the highchair as Noelle grabs Beanie. He heads outside and climbs over a nearby fence and is eventually carrying both kids. “I’m running towards the highway, screaming for help. Nobody’s coming. I turn back to see my whole front porch engulfed in flames. I see a pick-up truck with an open window. I put the twins in, and I see Noelle on the side of the house calling for the two boys.”
Abel escapes on his own and is safe. But Zephy and Noah aren’t there. “We were able to hear the two boys all the way up until then, coughing and screaming for help. And they were less than 10 feet away from us, from that door.”
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.
Facts on Home Fires and Safety Information