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Bobby Sager: The Night I Relearned What 'Now' Means

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The philanthropist shares the wisdom of perspective after surviving a fire on his island home.

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Editor's Note: Bobby Sager is an American philanthropist, photographer, and author. He is best known for founding the Sager Traveling Foundation and Roadshow, a charitable organization that has sponsored on-the-ground projects in areas of conflict and crisis, including Rwanda, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Zimbabwe, and Palestine. Sager was a partner and the president of Gordon Brothers Group from 1985 to 2000 and in 2013, he won the YPO Hickok Award, the highest honor within the Young Presidents Organization. Todd Harrison interviewed Bobby Sager in 2009, which can be viewed here.

I celebrated my 60th birthday last month. I found myself staring into the future and felt a kind of urgency to do something epic. But the other side of my brain whispered, "Relax, you have plenty of time."

Less than 48 hours later, I came within a minute or two of being burned to death. The house on our island became a raging inferno, and I was trapped on the second floor.
 
As I write this, I am acutely aware that I am basically having an internal discussion with myself about attachment, ego, and mortality. I hope this doesn't end up sounding like the ramblings of a traumatized survivor who thinks he has seen the truth and feels compelled to preach about it. 

My family lost our precious home and suffered unimaginable trauma, but I've never felt luckier or more thankful in my entire life. We don't feel bad for ourselves. We never asked why we were so lucky to have this island and this wonderful house in the first place, so we wouldn't now ask why we are so unlucky that it is gone.
 
Fire is the ultimate destructive force, but like the Hindu god Shiva, it destroys in order to create.

I don't recommend being trapped in a raging fire as a way to achieve greater thankfulness, but now that it's happened, I'm determined to find value to share with family and friends, and to somehow use this horrible experience as a way to be stronger, clearer, and more useful to others.
 
Please seriously consider how you would escape a fire in your own house. Imagine how stupid I feel when I think that I could be dead because I didn't have something as simple as a roll-up metal ladder under my bed. 

This was our first night back in our home after six months of adjustments to a six-year-long building process. An industrial crane floated next to the island for half a year. This was a monumental project. Now, I could finally feel nature's breeze through the sliding walls and sleep under the stars beneath our ceiling made of glass.

I took a deep breath and with a big exhale and an even bigger smile announced that after six years of thinking about this house, working on it, changing it, and after all the delays, frustration, and countless dollars, the house was finally done and I loved it.  

Only six hours later it was gone.


 

Feb 7, 2014

 

Feb 8, 2014



We built the structure of the house out of steel and cement so that it could last a thousand years for our kids and their kids and their kids and so on. But it vanished in a mere six hours.

"Man plans and God laughs."

I guess if you want something to last a thousand years, what matters is not the materials you use, but rather the experience you create within its walls, which nurtures and regenerates and rebuilds as it pleases and when it pleases. The world is full of grand, empty buildings that have outlived their beating hearts.

The island is in the middle of a big lake: no neighbors, no roads, no fire hydrant. It's where Elaine and I were married, where our kids grew up, and where we shared the magic of countless family dinners and celebrations. It has always been a kind of refuge that we would return to after spending time in places like Rwanda, the Middle East, Pakistan, or even when escaping our busy lives in Boston.

When we needed a sanctuary, the island would wrap its arms around us, soothe us, and keep us safe. The powerful memory of that warm embrace makes it all the more shocking to think that it would try to eat us alive.

This house was going to be a place to collect my thoughts and to fuel the next chapter of my life. A place where I didn't have to be a dancing bear, where I could catch my breath and feel at once both relaxed and alive. To write books, to read those of others, and to gather the energy and insight I need to make the biggest possible difference in the world. 

The house was designed as a place to enjoy the company of family and friends. The wide-open plan created a space where we could all be together. When we left the island and went our separate ways, we would draw upon that shared experience and togetherness to keep us close, no matter our physical distance from one another.

We built this house literally around the kids' childhood room from the home we had built 24 years before. Their old room was suspended on stilts in mid-air for more than two years while the new house grew around it. That special room was filled with many wonderful yesterdays. It was a kind of seed to nourish our tomorrows. But tomorrow would never come.

Here's what happened: It was about 4 a.m. The flames of the fireplace that had just a few short hours before comforted us with their warm glow had somehow morphed into a malevolent beast. The night sky was lit by the intense fire all around me. I keep on thinking about how angry the smoke seemed, like it was in a crazy rage.

The kids had managed to get down the stairway and outside, but when I opened the door to my bedroom, I was knocked back by the heat and smoke. I fell to the floor from the effect of breathing in the toxic poison. While I was lying on the floor, I somehow kicked the door shut before the smoke had a chance to totally overwhelm me. The firemen told me later that most people die from the smoke and not from the fire.

Tess, Shane, and Tess' boyfriend Ari were screaming my name from the bottom of the stairs and even made several attempts to get back up, but the smoke was too much. Since there was no response to their repeated screams, they tell me now that they thought I was either unconscious or already dead.  Imagine my kids and Ari thinking that I may be dying and not being able to reach me. I cannot believe the torment that they endured.

Thankfully, Tess had the presence of mind to run to my office which is located about 20 yards behind the main house and call 911 as well as an incredible local friend, our construction manager Jason Divirgilio. Jason got there but the fire department never did. Tess's quick thinking to call Jason and her persistence in calling him (since there was no answer the first four times) probably saved my life since the difference between being burned to death and escaping was nothing more than a few minutes.

Ari and Shane somehow made their way to the front of the house where they could see what I couldn't -- that everything above and below me was completely on fire. They yelled for me to jump before it was too late. But the flames were too big. I couldn't get to the edge of the building and even if I did, the surface below was much too unforgiving. If I had jumped, I could have easily been paralyzed or maybe even killed.

Ari and Shane ran to the back of the house to find a ladder. They carried it through the flames around the side of the building where the wall of 12-foot-high glass doors were bursting outward from the intense heat. Their bare feet frostbitten, their arms and faces singed by the relentless fire that could easily have consumed them. Unfortunately, the only ladder they could find was an extra heavy industrial version that would take a crew of several people to maneuver and raise. They couldn't get close enough to put the ladder up even though they burned, cut, and bruised themselves trying.

I was face to face with death. My brain shifted into a kind of parallel universe of acute awareness combined with a numbing fear. I had basically given up all hope, when I saw Jason's truck coming across the frozen lake from the mainland. He soon joined Ari and Shane in trying to convince me to jump. The propane tanks on the side of the house could have blown up at any second and there was fire everywhere.

I was tortured by Shane's imploring screams to jump. They sounded like the wails of an animal suffering. I was just about to run off the side of the building, but after spending my life taking chances, something in my deep instinct told me not to jump.

Just then, in the midst of the chaos, Jason remembered that he had told one of the workmen to remove a different ladder from the front yard just that very afternoon, but by some miracle, it had not been taken away. Jason, Shane, and Ari grabbed the ladder and positioned it onto the corner of the house.

The ladder was too short to reach me and there were flames all around it, but I was able to grab onto the column of the house and somehow lower myself down enough so that my dangling foot just touched the top of the ladder. I could feel the unbelievable heat crawling up my clothes and the smoke robbing me of oxygen. I took some number of steps down and jumped onto the steep and icy ground. 

It's beyond belief to think that after all the dangerous places I've been, I almost died a violent death just a few feet from my own bed. A friend of mind has since said that it was as if I had encountered the angel of death in my own bedroom, looked him in the eye, and told him to f*** off.

Tess had been on the other side of the building on the phone, totally alone, and could only see the back of the house, which was completely in flames. 


This was Tess's view during the fire.



In her mind, if I hadn't already died when she, Shane, and Ari were trying to save me by running up the smoky stairway at the beginning of the fire, now I must surely be dead.  

Jason ran to retrieve Tess from my office. We drove across the ice shocked, shaken, and filled with tears of joy and sadness.

It's hard to believe that something so intense and so destructive could leave us all relatively unscathed, at least physically. It's kind of like we were all in a horrible car crash where the car is crumpled beyond recognition yet the four of us walk away with only minor injuries.

Miraculously, I am the least physically hurt. Jason told Ashley that he watched me walk and crawl through the flames to get to the ladder and saw flames covering my arms as I came down, and yet somehow, I have no burns, not even a scratch. Just my nightmares and my memories.

Many of you have said that I must have a guardian angel, and maybe it's true. But who would have thought that my guardian angel would turn out to be a construction worker from New Hampshire? In an incredible twist, my guardian angel was himself almost killed by fire just a few months before. At the hospital after the fire, Jason's mother told me that she believed that God had saved Jason so that he would be there to save me.

A friend wrote to me saying that it seemed almost poetic that I spend my life trying to save others, and now I was the one who had been saved. Another friend sent me a note saying, "the rescuer has been rescued."

A friend in Bhutan wrote to us that he had just been to Taktsang Monastery, a place of pilgrimage and worship for more than a thousand years. The original temple was burnt to the ground 14 years ago. Elaine and I were the key foreign sponsors in its rebuilding.  Now as word spread in Bhutan about our fire, 120 monks had assembled at Taktsang to spend the entire day praying and chanting for our family's well-being.


Taktsang Monastery


 
The Tibetan monks that I have the great fortune to spend so much time with talk about the power of mindfulness and being in the moment. Too often we spend our time regretting what has happened or fretting about what may happen. We "live" in the past and in the future. We don't immerse ourselves in the present. Regrets and dreams play a role in forming who we are, but we can't let them crowd out the fullness of right now.
 
I have been working on a new book which is about thankfulness. I started writing it four years ago in Japan. In it, I talk about the magic of what I call "Tuesday afternoon," which I mean to represent the everyday, the so-called "ordinary." Many people wake up on Monday and wish it were Friday, and as a result, they wish away something like 70% of their lives. But life happens between the big days like New Year's Eve and your birthday. Those are just the icing; the cake is all the ordinary days in between. The everyday can become common without a tuned-in spirit. Everyday relationships and friendships can feel routine and we can de-sensitize to their wonder. Just because something happens daily certainly doesn't make it ordinary. 
 
Our incredible lives are made up almost entirely of ordinary days.
 
I hope this note helps you to think more about the magic of your own Tuesday afternoons and to think about how much we all take for granted. Gratitude is as critical to life as breathing. But an observation, no matter how good, only matters if it becomes practice. Time works to separate us from our moments of clarity. How do we engage each day with optimism and wonder? How do we find ways to fill our days with gratitude for things big and small? How do we tune into the subtleties? How do we make each day more vivid?
 
If you were to die tomorrow, think about all that would be left unsaid and undone. Who would you have not said thank you to, or I'm sorry, or I love you? What kinds of things would be left undone? What lessons would you have failed to pass on to loved ones?
 
Tomorrow may never come. How does that change how we live all of our todays?
 
We of course know we will die eventually, but at least for me, death has always had a vague, even abstract character. It seemed too fuzzy and too far off to actually effect how I would live my life today. I couldn't possibly have known when I laid my head on my pillow to go to sleep that night that I would be fighting for my life a few short hours later.
 
People are most formed and strengthened by adversity. That's when you learn the most about other people and about yourself. Shit happens to everyone. The real question is how you lift yourself up and how you use what you've learned and how you've been tested to make yourself better. It's not just about getting up; it's about getting up smarter and stronger. 
 
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, "The wound is the place where the light enters you."

Six years to build, six hours to be destroyed, I'm as lucky and as thankful as can be.

What a nightmare; how interesting.
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