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Survivors of hell
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An artist's illustration of residents of the Sugar Bush areas, trying to protect themselves from the fire. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Electronic Reader)
After the fire, shocked and badly burned survivors searched for their families. In this excerpt from Firestorm at Peshtigo, by Denise Gess and William Lutz, one survivor tells his devastating tale.

— Helplessness was what Sandy Mac, a farmer from the middle Bush, felt when he lifted his head from the riverbank. His mind worked in fragments and from that morning on, every time he tried to explain, the words ushered from his lips in choppy phrases, a bereaved man's mantra:

"Bridge on fire. Wind, people, horses, screamin'. Horses fightin' loose, runnin' back. Had only one driven' line left, used it to pull Star onto a wagon layin' on its side. My shirt was on fire, ripped it off. Jumped out and turned to get Rose and the little ones down to the water. Wagon, wagon, was empty. Nothin' in the box. Empty."

His horse Star stood close by. Sandy Mac's clothes, what was left of them, were soaked. He scraped his way along the bank, digging his fingers into the dirt, feeling for water to splash on his eyes. At first he believed he was blind, until he felt his face, discovering that his eyelids were pasted shut and his face was swollen to three times its normal size.

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Image Author Denise Gess

He would not have known it, but his facial burns were as severe as radiation burns in which the top layers of skin are so thoroughly seared that the skin bloats and stretches tautly over the bones of the face, often searing the retinas and sealing the eyelids closed. He rinsed his eyes. The water was soothing but he had to pull his eyelids open and then he did the same for Star. It was not until then that he realized he was surrounded by people dragging themselves from the northern bend of the Peshtigo River. Babies and children were crying, but the men and women were silent. Star's burnt leather line still stuck to Sandy's blistered hand.

He did not yet feel the blisters that covered his back and head, but he saw that Star's mane and foretop had been burned off, leaving only raw, bloody patches. Her tail had burned down to just a stub, and the skin was peeling off her tongue.

Sandy Mac pulled the leather line, leading the horse up the riverbank. With only one thought he began to pick his way south. He had to find his wife, Rose, and his children ...

Sandy could not even tell there had been a road where he found the iron wheel rims, axles, and wagon irons mixed with the mound of ashes. He stood and stared at all that was left of his wagon and flashes from the night flickered in his mind.

Wagon... wagon was empty. Nothin' in the box. Empty. Rose and the little ones, he had put them in the wagon. Now he started to walk to it but stopped. He could not bear to look. Instead, he bent down and picked up the three-legged iron kettle that was lying close to the ashes of his family. He tucked it in the crook of his arm where there was unburned skin. Then he turned and walked away ...

After an hour or so he saw three rock piles, and he knew he was almost home. He looked for the familiar buildings but saw nothing. As he got closer he saw just the stone foundations of his home. Star whinnied. Despite the smoke and destruction, she knew she was home. Sandy stood by the stone culvert where the farm gate once stood. There was no use going any farther.

He was not sure if he was hallucinating or whether the whimpering he heard was real. The roads and farms had been so transformed into stretches of silvered, hot ash, it could have been a nightmare. He looked in the culvert, amazed to see his dog, Brownie, whose tail and ears had been burned off.

When he saw Brownie's burns he knew both the animals and he needed water desperately if they were to survive. Sandy picked his way through the rubble of his farm, across the yard strewn with dead chickens, to the well he had dug years ago. The fire had burned the well rope so he had no way to raise the bucket.

But he remembered that he had filled his big iron kettle with water just before the fire and left it on the stone hearth. He searched through the ruins, trying to figure out where the kettle would be. Finally he found it. Although it had a big crack from the fire, there were still about five quarts of water left in it. The water was filled with bits of burned wood, but it was drinkable.

Sandy took the little bit of cornmeal he had, mixed it with some water, and fed it to Star. The horse was all he had and he needed to take care of her. He found one of the burned chickens and tore the liver from it and fed it to Brownie. Then he washed his eyes and the eyes of both the dog and the horse with the remains of the water. It was time to leave.

Sandy climbed on Star and held Brownie. The horse needed no guidance to find her way to town, a trip she had made many times on the road.

He was about two miles from town, believing that the fire had struck only the Sugar Bushes and that in Peshtigo he would find food, water, and treatment for his burns when he saw a man, his wife, and two small children. They were dazed and wandering. "Do you know the way to Peshtigo?" the man asked. The children were horribly burned and barely alive.

Sandy got off Star, and he and the man put the woman and children on the horse. The man stood alongside the horse, holding the woman and children in place. Sandy carried Brownie and Rose's iron kettle. The smallest child, a girl, was coughing constantly. After a while, when she had stopped coughing, the father carried the body the rest of the way.

When they came to the rise in the road that overlooked Peshtigo, there was no town.

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