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My Near-Death Long Ago

Twenty five years ago you might have read a brief notice in a local paper like this: “Local pastor, Stan Hagemeyer, died of smoke inhalation while staying in a cabin in Maine. He was on study-leave from his church. A flaw in the fireplace set a slow smoldering fire creating the fatal accident. Mr. Hagemeyer never awoke from his sleep. An investigation is being conducted.”

But it did not turn out that way. Here’s the rest of the story. In 1994 I was blessed with a generous sabbatical leave of 12 weeks. I arranged to spend the month of May in a friend’s cabin in Maine. He and I drove up to Maine in separate cars to open up the place after its winter sleep. He oriented me to the unique qualities of the place, and then headed back to his home along the Hudson River.

This modern log cabin sits on solid rock at the shore of an inland lake about 20 miles northeast of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. The last mile of the road going deep into the woods led to the cabin but was barely passable where it crossed shallow washouts. The other summer cabins on the lake were not yet occupied in the month of May. I was happy to have no one around.

The lake is isolated so there is no electricity. The cabin is lighted by gas lamps fed by an LP cylinder. The refrigerator runs on the same gas. There is no source of heat except the fireplace. A high, open cathedral ceiling reveals beautiful wood all around. The building sits on 12x12 wooden beams that form its foundation sitting on exposed rock, the beams crisscrossing under everything, including the stone fireplace.

It being mid-May, nights are still very chilly in this part of Maine. I had a good supply of firewood and kept a small fire burning in the fireplace when I went to bed every night. I had already been there a couple weeks with no untoward incident. But this one night, I almost died.

After a few hours of sound sleep, I awoke coughing. But I was too sleepy to be really concerned. Perhaps there had been some down draft, I thought, and went back to sleep. Later I awoke again. The air seemed foggy and my mind was foggy, too. But checking the fire, I saw it was almost out, and the smoke going up the chimney as it should. I went back to bed. Some time later I awoke around 5:00 A.M. hacking and coughing heavily. My throat was hurting. The room was filled with smoke! I was confused. The fire had gone out. How could it produce so much smoke? Now my mind began to work frantically. The house might be on fire! As I hurried to get dressed, a sharp, hacking cough kept rattling my chest.

Outside I quickly looked all around the house. There was smoke curling out from somewhere. Peeking under the house I could see the smoke curling around from an area under the fireplace. But I could see no fire. I had to crawl part way under to see what shocked me. Directly below the fireplace two giant support beams were smoldering and smoking. A hole about 12 inches in diameter was already hollowed out where two beams crossed, with the glowing wood hidden by the other parts of the beams. There were no flames, but the solid cedar glowed like a giant cigar.

I hurried to get water from the lake. But I couldn’t toss it up into the fire. The space was too cramped. I ran into the house for a cup. Now I could throw water up into the smoldering fire that was partly shielded by the lower layer. I made trips back and forth to the lake for more water. It seemed forever before the heat and smoke died out. It had taken about twenty minutes to stop the fire.

Then I sat down and my body began to shake. I realized that it was a quiet morning, with dawn just breaking out on the beautiful hazy lake. There was no wind. If there had been a wind, what would have happened? Wouldn’t the beams have broken into a vigorous fire? Wouldn’t it burn fast enough to put out the little light of life in me?

What I learned later was that a small crack had opened up in the stone and mortar near the front edge of the fireplace. And on this one night evidently a small cinder fell through the crack. The contractor who built the cabin came out and planned repairs to prevent this ever happening again.

But before I could focus my mind enough to make a cell call to my friend, the owner, I sat and cried. My body shook with fear and joy. I thanked the Lord for preserving my life. I pondered how close to death’s door I had been sleeping, unawares. Unaware of my fragile existence. And ever so thankful for living.

Copyright 2019 Stanley Hagemeyer

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