Horrific Monday

I was in a meeting Monday afternoon. Three phone calls hit my cell, but I ignored them.

A few minutes later, I glanced at my email (on my tablet laptop): someone asked about all the fire trucks in my neighborhood.

Oh, no!

I darted from the meeting. My wife’s voice message nervously said the next door neighbor’s house was on fire!

I scurried out of work, got the kid, and returned home to a surreal scene of firefighters, fire trucks, cops, neighbors, and smoldering wood.

View from my front porch, about 90 minutes after explosion. One fire truck had already left. Cops were blocking both sides of street and monitoring the block.
View from my front porch, about 90 minutes after explosion. One fire truck had already left. Cops were blocking both sides of street and monitoring the block.

Now flash back 45 minutes:

A contractor’s employee was stripping tile adhesive off the next door neighbor’s enclosed concrete-floored porch. Somehow the solvent fumes exploded.

Right after the explosion:

  • The employee was horrifically burned and dashed into the neighbor’s pool.
  • My wife thought a big tree hit our house. (She was on the other end.) She scooped up our 2 week old son and went outside to survey damage. That’s when she saw the flames shooting from the neighbor’s house, right towards our master bedroom. All she could do was watch, hoping the flames didn’t ignite our master bedroom.
  • Neighbor A ran outside with his phone, saw the smoke. Called 911 and ran around to the house. Went to their back yard and found the horrifically burned man in the pool. He stayed by the man, keeping him mentally engaged, for 20 minutes until the paramedics finally arrived, only departing to make sure paramedics were on the way. (Why did it take 20 minutes?)
  • Neighbor B ran outside, saw the flames, grabbed my water hose, and sprayed my house and the burning house until firefighters arrived. There’s a good chance he prevented my house from catching fire–my A/C unit got so hot that a plastic label warped. He said the horrifically burned man was hard to look at and concentrated on spraying the fire since neighbor A was attending to him.

    Warped plastic label on A/C condenser unit
    Warped plastic label on A/C condenser unit
  • Neighbor C ran outside and helped get my wife, who was almost beside herself, into her house, away from the smoke. She also helped move the next door neighbor’s vehicle and helped with other things.
  • The next door neighbor was inside but on the opposite end of her house. She ran to the other side, saw the flames, and headed out the door.

End result:

  • About 1/5 of my neighbor’s house is charred, with water infiltration and smoke elsewhere.
  • The horrifically injured man died of his injuries at Parkland Hospital’s burn unit.
Representative charring. (I'm not posting more pictures as they would invade the neighbor's privacy.)
Detail of extensive charring in enclosed porch.

I’m the kind of guy who wants to be useful. And I so badly wanted to be useful at the scene. But I realized my best use was to stay back. My neighbor is insured and physically taken care of. Her friends and family and several other neighbors had already descended on the scene to help.

About all I’ve been able to do is hug the neighbor twice on Monday and coiled up her hose on Wednesday. Oh, and complimented her on her new roof color (blue tarp).

I think my house’s master bedroom is the closest inhabited bedroom to this horrific scene. Even now I can see the poor man’s blood near the pool. His Burger King lunch and Diet Dr. Pepper can are still on a  table.

This is still my house, but something horrific happened next door that many will never forget.

As I hold my 2 week old son, my heart aches for this guy’s parents. He was once their 2 week old son. They had to take a $1,490 flight to Dallas to see him die. Then $2,146 to cremate his remains and do a funeral back home.

I’m also sad for my next door neighbor. She is so nice, looks after my pets and house when I’m gone. Why did this have to happen to her?

I’m also sad for my wife and the three other neighbors who had to witness this horrific, surreal scene firsthand. And my wife had to do it while holding my 2 week old son.

Now it’s Thursday. I’ve only seen my next door neighbor once, when her daughter stopped by to assure me the cleanup contractor’s generator won’t crank all night long. Let’s put this in context: neighbor loses 1/5 of house, has horrific scene, and comes to assure me the generator won’t run all night. What could I say? “Thanks”? I felt like a jerk.

Speaking of jerks, not all ambulance chasers are lawyers. While standing in front of her burning house, my neighbor received at least four business cards from police scanner-listening, bottom feeding contractors scrounging for business. Even supposedly name brand companies like Blackmon Mooring Steamatic were hounding her!

My neighborhood is raising money for the family of the deceased man. They were taking out a loan to cover the funeral expenses.

I’m president of my neighborhood association. I am picky about what goes through our official “announce” email group because, in a way, it connotes endorsement. Were we saying something against our neighbor if we endorsed this fundraising?

I ran it by the assocaition’s corporate board. This was new. We didn’t know what to do, so we were almost split down the middle, leaning conservative and saying don’t endorse. But I saw the legitimacy as the organic fundraising developed steam (on our unoffiicial “discuss” email group where anybody can send messages). This was nothing more than a compassionate response to a human tragedy.

So I ran it by the board again, a little more forcefully. I got their endorsement. This is what I finally emailed to the neighborhood:


Neighborhood resident Sheryl Perier has spoken with Dallas Fire and Rescue Chaplain David Smith about Monday’s house fire victim.

His name is Charles Harris, Jr.. He was about 40 years old and is originally from Alabama.

His family had significant expenses:

  • $1490 for the flights so his parents could be with Charles when he died.
  • $2146 for the cremation (in Dallas) and Alabama funeral expenses.

They are trying to get a loan to cover this.

From Sheryl:

At the Alabama airport, Charles Jr.’s mother Patty had a headache and asked her husband Charles [the father] to go buy her some Advil. The man sitting next to them was a minister taking their flight through Dallas on his way to a convention in San Diego.  He gave them Advil and knelt down and prayed with them. There were empty seats on the flight in first class so the the minister and the parents were moved to first class so they could sit together. Next to them, in first class, was a nurse from the burn unit at Parkland, who was also able to comfort them. They made it to Parkland and were in the room with their son singing and praying for him. The doctor said he could hear. He was gasping for air. Patty told him it was okay for him to let go, that they were there with him, and that God was waiting for him. Within three minutes, he stopped gasping and his heart rate went down to nothing and he died.

Charles Jr.’s maternal grandmother is also dying from heart problems, and a minister is with her at this moment. She said God has angels all around her and that He will not give them more than they can bear. She felt like our call was also God’s hand reaching out to help them and thanks us.

If you feel so moved, you can make a donation to help the family. The donation should be a check made out to Christian Firefighters Association with a memo of “For the family of Charles Harris.” Per Chaplain Smith, this is a 501(c)(3), so your donation is tax deductible.

Checks can be dropped off at Gary McDonnell’s house at 1015 Erin Dr. Gary has the organization’s tax ID if you need it for your records.

This effort was organized by Sheryl Perier and is not being routed through the neighborhood association. It is intended to be a compassionate response by individual neighbors to a human tragedy.

Aren Cambre, President
Lake Park Estates Neighborhood Association, Inc.
A 501(c)(4) nonprofit

Individual neighbors have raised $540 as of 7:30 PM today. We’re still collecting.

Man, it’s been a weird week. Such contrasts. I am so fortunate; things could have been much worse.

Here’s two Dallas Morning News articles:

I baked my son’s birthday cake

I baked a cake for my older son’s birthday. It probably wasn’t the awesome super hero flashy cake to fulfill his preschool desires, but I was impressed.

I made it from scratch. Nothing but raw ingredients came out of boxes. I even used cake flour to give the cake extra smoothness.

Here’s where I folded in the melted unsweetened chocolate:

I slightly screwed up the recipe. At one point, I was supposed to alternate between adding dry and wet ingredients to the base mixture. I added all the dry ingredients before the wet, so I had a really dry, chunky mixture. I had to beat the wet stuff into it longer than I should have, but it came out fine.

The two cakes after baking:
Our oven is really old and doesn’t maintain temperatures well. A third of the way through the baking, I found the oven was 25 degrees too high. A quick temperature change and some oven venting saved the day.

My wife lighting the final product:

Yeah, the frosting wasn’t smooth:

I made it from scratch, and I made it correctly. I don’t know why it didn’t spread smoothly. Maybe it should have been warmer?

Here’s the inside:

Boy, was it delicious! Way better than box mix cake and partially hydrogenated frosting from the tub!

The birthday boy augmented his slide:

So maybe it wasn’t a superhero cake. But it had a superhero taste!

Texas’s mythical citizen legislator

The Texas citizen legislator is a partial myth: few ordinary citizens can afford to be a legislator, especially if they face a competitive race.

Evidence is both empirical and mathematical.


99.3% of legislators are not ordinary citizens with ordinary employment. My skimming of biographical data and limited statistical sampling finds that all legislators except one are one or more of:

  • Wealthy
  • Have spouse with significant income
  • Attorney, business owner, high ranking officer, or other career that benefits from prestige of being a legislator or has unusual employment flexibility

One exception: Armando Martinez of Weslaco is a firefighter and paramedic.

Source: House of Representatives Biographical Data and individual legislator biographies when the prior reference was not clear.


Why so few ordinary citizens? The math explains.

Prima facie evidence suggests legislators are well paid despite their $600 monthly salary. Include the $168 per diem for the 140 day regular session, and you get gross pay of $37,920 for the 2 year term. An annualized equivalent (divide by 140, multiply by 365) is $98,862. Not bad.

But the mathematics can skew:

Living expenses. The per diem‘s intent is for living expenses incurred while attending a  legislative session. Fortunately, the Texas Ethics Commission allow campaign funds to cover these expense (source). This is critical: if all the per diem had to go to legislative-related living expenses, that would slash the salary to $14,400, or an annualized equivalent of $37,542. But you still must have a substantial campaign fund to pull this off. That takes a lot of work.

Special sessions. The complexity of issues facing the Legislature are challenging its part time status. For example, the 78 legislature (2003-2004) had four special sessions.

This skews the equivalent annual pay math. Additionally, each special session increases the number of days a legislator can’t work his regular career.

This chart illustrates the pay effect of special sessions, expressed in annualized salary:

Other events outside of session. Legislators may need to attend occasional committee meetings and other events outside the legislative session. I don’t know if the legislator gets per diem compensation for these, but their effect is to further dilute gross annualized pay similar to special sessions.

Campaigning. This is the killer. If you’re in a competitive district or have a tough nomination fight (or both!), you will probably dedicate a few months just to campaigning. That means you can’t work your “real job.”

I philosophically oppose public campaign financing, so I’m not calling for any official remuneration. Public financing allows too much state control over who can run for office, and raising private money is a good test of one’s support.

The Texas Ethics Commission could help by allowing campaign funds to cover wages and benefits lost while campaigning. Candidates shouldn’t starve, and COBRA is costly!

Without that, it looks like you have to rely on personal funds to compensate for lost wages and benefits.


I admit it: I’d love to be in the legislature. But it’s tough since I’m not in one of the privileged categories. However, it’s not impossible.