Thursday , 26 April 2018

Storybook Ranch’s Michael Javier Rebuilds His Life with a Full Heart After January’s Devastating Fire

By Ben Lane, TSB Staff

Michael Javier was resting comfortably in his chair. The TV was on. His jacket was off. His hat was off. His boots were off. The Storybook Ranch foreman had finished a long day and retired for the evening to his second-story apartment above Storybook Ranch’s entertainment pavilion. The air on that early January night was a little chilly, so Michael turned on his small space heater.

A short time later, he smelled the smoke.

In just a few short minutes, a massive fire would consume the entire two-story building. Michael Javier lost everything he owned in that fire. The fire took it all. The things that didn’t burn were so waterlogged, charred, shattered and smoke-riddled that they were beyond saving.

Sixty years of life spread throughout his apartment and stored in boxes in the attic next door. Gone. Sixty years of memories and mementos gathered from his travels around the globe. Gone. Sixty years of valuable possessions whose value could be measured in dollars and invaluable possessions whose value could only be measured in Michael’s heart. Gone. All of it gone, within a matter of minutes.

Michael Javier lost the pages of his life in that fire. It’s a night that he will never forget.

Michael was born and raised in Hawaii. That’s where tragedy touched Michael’s life for the first time. At seven, he lost both of his parents to a car accident. Asked these days about his parents’ death, he demonstrates an air of positivity that permeates throughout his entire outlook on life and contradicts how you think he might feel considering what he’s lost. “It’s alright,” he says. “It was a long time ago. It’s 53 years ago. That’s a lifetime for some people.”

And What a Life He’s Lived

After his parents’ death, Michael was placed into foster care and moved to the Long Beach area of Southern California. He was raised by his foster mother and father and calls them his family now. “I have foster brothers and sisters that I call my brothers and sisters,” he says.

Michael grew up ranching, but his dad wanted more for Michael. He pushed Michael to go to college. “He wanted me to get an education and join the working world and not be a rancher or a farmer,” Michael says. Michael took his dad’s advice. “I went to a small college…out on the west coast…in Westwood, California…called UCLA,” Michael says with a chuckle.

He graduated from UCLA and became a structural engineer, specializing in the weight and balance of corporate and private jets. “The engineers or designers would come up with an interior configuration and I would say, ‘Yeah, you can put the sofa here, but then you gotta put a credenza on this side to counter-balance the weight,’ ” he says.

The key, Michael says, is maintaining a balance between the pieces of furniture on board. “It all breaks down into a balance thing so the plane could still fly.”

He’d end up spending nearly 30 years of his life traveling the world to visit various “fixed base operations” where his company would be outfitting a new jet. “I spent almost five years in Europe,” Michael says. “I went to South America, Sao Paulo in Brazil. I’ve been to Borneo, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and Central America.

“It was nice. It afforded me the opportunity to travel the world,” he says. “My passport looked like a comic book. It was stamped so many times.”

Michael made his home in Dallas when his company transferred him there in the early 1970’s. He was stationed at Love Field, which at the time was the international airport for Dallas because DFW International was still under construction.

Michael spent what would be his last four years in aviation in Chicago based at the Quad City International Airport in Moline, Illinois. After nearly 30 years in the aviation industry, he decided to retire.

So, he packed up his 3-bedroom rental house, loaded everything he owned into a moving truck, and headed back down to Dallas to plot his next move. He was, in his own words, “too young for Social Security and Medicaid and too old to go back into the work force.”

But Michael isn’t exactly the type of guy to just kick his feet up and enjoy his retirement. He’s a worker. Always has been.

So he called Wayne Kirk, who owned the Frisco Horse Park at the time. Wayne and Michael have been friends for 16 years. “It was a long time, good relationship with Wayne,” Michael says. “Well, when I retired I called Wayne, and I told Wayne I was moving back to Texas and I needed a job. Wayne said `I need a foreman.’ ”

Wayne needed someone who had an understanding of horses, was good around animals and could teach children. Michael fit the bill on all counts. “I grew up around horses my whole life,” Michael says. “My mom’s family was from Arkansas and my dad’s family were Hawaiian ranchers. I know horses good and I know animals real well.”

“Not only do I love horses and animals so much, but because of my…the way I was raised as a child…I was given opportunities…being raised in foster homes. I wanted to give back and that’s what we’re all about is special needs. Nothing gives me greater enjoyment than to teach a special needs lesson or teach a class for children with special needs or help a group of boy scouts get their camping or horsemanship badge. It’s all about the kids”

Glass Half Full … Despite it All

That air of positivity is one of the first things that strike you when you meet Michael. He looks at the bright side of life, doesn’t look back with regret or sadness, and loves getting up and going to work every day. He’s kind, gentle, warm and welcoming to everyone he meets.

When Wayne and the River Ranch Educational Charities bought Storybook Ranch in 2010, Michael moved into an apartment of the second story of Wild Bill’s/Calamity Jane’s Entertainment Pavilion. As ranch foreman, he’s responsible for the safety of the animals and safety of the ranch. Therefore he needs to live on the property. Because he was downsizing considerably from his three-bedroom home in Chicago to a one-bedroom apartment, the vast majority of his belongings remained in boxes and went into storage the attic space next to his apartment.

He would return to his apartment every night after days spent on trail rides, working with the animals, teaching kids how to ride a horse or doing just about anything else that needed to be done around the property.

This January 3rd, he returned to his apartment after a long day of working on the ranch. He was sitting in his chair, as mentioned before. And it was cold that night. Temperatures in McKinney would drop below freezing. Thus the need for that space heater. He hadn’t used his space heater in a few days and he thought that smoke smell was maybe the lint burning off of the heater. So he reached over and turned the heater off.

After about 10 minutes had passed, he still smelled smoke. “This ain’t right,” he thought to himself. He got up, walked to the door of his apartment and stepped into the attic.

“I opened up the attic door and there was like a foggy mist of smoke,” Michael says. “Kind of like an early winter morning where you have a lot of fog or dew. You can see, but the visibility is poor.”

His first thought was that there was a fire in the attic. He ran back to his apartment and grabbed his flashlight. He turned the apartment’s lights on. He still had power so he thought the problem couldn’t be that serious.

He went back into the attic area and looked all around to see if there were any signs of a fire in the attic. He didn’t find any. “This ain’t right,” he thought to himself again.

He walked over to the door on the other side of the attic. On the other side of this door was the only set of stairs to get down to the first floor. “And as soon as I opened the door, there was this MASSIVE burst of thick, black smoke,” he says.

Because of the design of the building he could see the crawlspace between the first and second floors where the air conditioning ducts were. “I could see the flames coming out of there…right across the stairwell,” he says. “So I knew I couldn’t get down. There was nothing I could do.”

He slammed the door to the stairwell, ran back into his apartment and shut that door as well. He grabbed a towel off the towel rack, soaked it in the sink and shoved it under his door.

He grabbed his cellphone and dialed 911. The 911 operator asked him if he could get out. “And I said, ‘Well I have one window that I have access to but it’s hermetically sealed. It’s not meant to be opened or closed,’ ” he says.

“And I kept trying to kick on the window and I couldn’t break it. The panes were about six by six inches in a metal frame, double sealed, and I kept kicking them but they wouldn’t break.” He was trapped.

A Night He’ll Never Forget

The 911 operator told Michael not to worry about the window because the fire department was already on its way. But by then the room was starting to fill up with smoke. She told Michael to get down low and stay there.

He held his cellphone up to one ear. His flashlight was still in his other hand.

Instantly he thought of a way to signal the firefighters and alert them of his location. He told the 911 operator that he’d flash his flashlight in the window and told her to send the firefighters to the building behind the “big house “(Storybook’s main building at the front of the property).

All he could do now was wait for the fire department to arrive. The roughly five-minute wait “seemed like an eternity,” as the room was filling with more smoke.

Throughout the entire time he had to wait, the 911 operator kept him talking. She would ask him if he was okay or if he could see the fire trucks yet and tell him to keep on talking to her.

In those five minutes, Michael’s only thoughts were about getting out of there alive. Looking back now, he wonders if he had time to run around the apartment and save a few things. “I could have walked around the apartment and said, `oh gosh, let me grab this picture or let me grab this safety box, or let me unplug my computer,’ you know?”

But in a life-or-death situation like that, he was only thinking about the voice on the other end of the phone and whether the fire trucks were there or not. “All I thought about was, can you see them? And I’d rise up, and I’d say no, they’re not here yet.”

“Do you see them now?,” the 911 operator asked him that night as the firefighters arrived at Storybook. “Yeah, but they’re at the front building,” he said to her.

The firefighters were checking the second floor of the front building. “Tell them to come to the building behind,” he told her.

The firefighters spotted Michael in the alcove window of his apartment. “As soon as they did, I saw the ladder come up,” Michael says.

Two firefighters climbed the ladder and shouted, “Stand back!” to Michael as they swung their axes into the window. “It was like a cartoon because they had these massive axes and they took a swing at and it bounced off the glass,” he says. The window was that strong.”

“Then they started hitting the wood trim all the way around that enclosed the window. And they busted that out and then it broke the glass and they were able to cut the frame out all the way around.”

The firefighters grabbed Michael by the arm and pulled him to safety. 

As Michael looked back onto the building that had been his home, he saw that the fire was ravaging the attic. “It went up like a furnace and spread immediately to my apartment,” Michael says.

A Look Back with Thankfulness … and Sadness

Storybook Ranch’s main entertainment building was leveled. Kirk would tell that the cost to rebuild would be between $450,000 and $500,000. Meanwhile, the McKinney Fire Department said no audible smoke alarms were found, while Fire Chief Danny Kistner praised its “outstanding rescue.”

But more importantly, if the McKinney Fire Department had gotten there even a minute later, or if Michael hadn’t been able to think clearly under intense and life-threating pressure, then Storybook’s ranch foreman might have died that night. Michael was safe from the fire’s wrath, but everything he owned would soon be gone.

Investigators would later determine that the fire started after some kind of animal got into the electrical wires and started chewing. The fire started on the first floor, rose to the second floor, went across the attic space and finally consumed Michael’s apartment just moments after he was pulled from the window.

In the attic, he had cases and cases of rare and valuable baseball cards from the 1950’s and 1960’s. There were “maybe 30-40 albums to each case and then shoeboxes and shoeboxes and shoeboxes in each case individual in plastic holders and stuff.”

He had been collecting cards since the 1980’s and was to the point where he had culled out all but the “mint” cards. Mint cards are those in the finest condition without any imperfections at all. Mint cards from the 1950’s and 1960’s are incredibly valuable.

“That’s all that was there. Especially once the bottom (of the card value market) fell out, it wasn’t worth having all of these (other) cards. The cards that I did have were all extremely collectible.”

Among his rare cards were “The early Yankee cards…the Brooklyn Dodger cards…stars like Lou Gehrig…Hank Aaron’s rookie card…Nolan Ryan’s rookie card…Mickey Mantle’s rookie card. Just those…those were the most valuable. Just…yeah, the ones from the early 50’s and early 60’s.”

All of the time, energy, and money he’d poured into his passion were gone when the fire destroyed all of those cards. He lost countless mementos and collectibles from his travels around the world too. He lost all of his furniture. He lost all of his clothes. He lost any picture he’d ever taken. Sixty years of memories gone in a matter of minutes. 

The items that weren’t burned up by the fire were shattered and destroyed when the floor of his apartment collapsed onto the first floor of the building while the firefighters were trying to put out the fire. “They had pretty much saturated the building with water,” he says. And so the whole bottom floor of my apartment just collapsed down into the interior of this building.

“And then when the building collapsed, it just crushed any fragile items.”

Once the fire department had completed its on-site investigation, officials released the building back to Storybook and Michael was able to sift through as much rubble as he could to find what remained. “I found a few coins,” he says. “Because coins were hard to melt. And because of the way the debris was scraped up with the bulldozers and backhoes, it was hard to sift through the stuff, you know.

“I used to feel emotionally…I would feel saddened when I would hear of people that would lose their homes in a flood or in a tornado and even a fire. And I would say, ‘Oh how devastating, how can I help?’ But I never understood the depth of the loss until it happened to me. And that was, in my opinion, complete.”

His voice catches in his throat.

“Maybe one-half of one percent of everything I’ve ever owned in my entire life was saved. And that includes my cell phone, because I had that in my hand because the 911 operator would never let me hang up. But everything else, except the clothes that I was wearing when they took me out, was gone. That’s how devastating a fire is.”

He was able to salvage, in his estimation, two boxes of what he called “really weird things … I found my dad’s watch that he had given me,” he says. “A picture that my girlfriend had given me. I found another little thing; well it was a piece of memorabilia that an ex-girlfriend had given me from Arkansas. I mean, just weird stuff that was saved.

“The valuable things as far as moneywise are gone. And then the valuable things that can never be replaced…”

He pauses for a moment as tears form in his eyes.

“It’s really funny…people that night started telling me that night…‘Michael, it’s just so fortunate, that you were awake and smelled the smoke and were able to contact the fire department and they got you out and you’re alive. You can always replace those material possessions.’ That is not entirely true.”

He pauses again and takes a deep breath.

“I can go out and I can buy a new toaster. And I can buy a new TV. But how do you replace the plaster hand mold that your daughter made in kindergarten or how do you replace the drawings that your kids drew for you that you hung with pride on your refrigerator for a month and then they thought you threw them away but you saved them in a box?” He trails off as the words catch in his throat again.

“How do you replace things like that? You don’t.”

Moving Forward

The damage was more catastrophic than he ever could have imagined. “A tornado or a flood will wash things or blow things away, but I mean, a fire literally melts everything,” Michael says.

He pauses again.

“Any clothes or anything that wasn’t burned are damaged forever. Because it’s smoked, charred, cindered, fried…whatever. A fire, when it’s complete like that, is just so destructive. And you don’t understand or you can’t comprehend how destructive and massive it is until it happened to you personally. Now when somebody says ‘I had a house fire’, I can relate…I just give them a big hug.”

People in the nearby neighborhoods and from all over North Texas rallied around Storybook once they learned of the fire and the devastation that Michael suffered. Donations came in immediately. “The very next day, within 24 hours of the fire, there must have been six or eight bags of clothing inside there,” Michael says.

People donated money as well. One couple’s donation touched Michael very deeply. In addition to his role of ranch foreman, Michael also serves as the ranch’s minister. “So I had married this couple and they had had their wedding reception here less than a month before the fire,” he says. “And they live right across the area. When they saw all the fire trucks and everything, like anybody else, they came over to see what was going on.

“And he went around, the very next day around his neighborhood,” his voice catches again. “Now I don’t even know this guy really. And they collected over a thousand dollars which was great you know…I used it buy things like…dishes, towels, sheets, a new bed. You know…it was great.”

In the three months since the fire, Michael has helped aid in the clean-up and rebuilding efforts. He’s still there, every single day. He’s still living on the property too. These days it’s in a “cozy and comfortable” trailer until they complete the rebuild. He even has a houseguest.

He’s raising a baby goat whose mother rejected her. Michael named her Ebony and she follows Michael all over the ranch property. He bottle-feeds Ebony and she sleeps on the floor of his trailer. “But not in the bed,” Michael says.

The relationship between the two is touching. Ebony runs right up to Michael as he sits down to pose for a picture. She licks his hands and sniffs him while he pets her. “She doesn’t know she’s a goat,” he says. “She thinks she’s a dog.”

From time to time, Michael’s children, Ryan and Holly, will come out visit the ranch too. Holly is 30 but she’s still Michael’s “little princess.” Ryan, 32, will bring Michael’s granddaughter, Samantha, out to take pony rides and see the petting zoo. “I love both of my kids very, very much,” he says. And they love their dad. So that’s all that matters.”

Once they got the rubble cleared off, Michael and the team at Storybook started rebuilding. They’ve already finished rebuilding the deck and they built new walls around the area where the shattered remains of his apartment once laid smoldering. A new building is literally rising from the ashes.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that this was only one of 16 buildings,” he says. “So we’re still open. We were open the next day for business. We still do trail rides. We still have lessons. We still have parties and events.”

“So it’s important for people to know that when Storybook caught on fire, it was just one building. We didn’t shut down. We’re open.”

Getting back to work and spending time with the kids that visit the ranch has been vital for Michael. It’s allowed him to fill his days without allowing his mind to wander and lament over what he lost in that fire.

“I’m truly grateful to Storybook for giving me an opportunity to work here and to live here and to give so much back to the other people,” he says. “But also to all those individuals who contributed and who will contribute to the rebuilding of the ranch, not so much for my benefit, but for the benefit of the kids, we really need to get this area done and back up and running again. And I’m truly thankful to them for that.

“I chose this place for two reasons: for the animals and for the kids,” he says. “You know? And there is no greater joy in the world than to see the smile on their face when they bond with that horse for the first time or they play with the animals in the petting zoo.

“Or to have a young couple kiss each other when you pronounce them man and wife. Or you help someone celebrate a 30th or 40th wedding anniversary. You know…it’s just…as a charities ranch, we do so much for people and it makes you feel so good inside.”

“It’s the kind of job where you wake up in the morning and you’re excited about going to work because you don’t know who you’re going to meet that day. You don’t know who you’re going to help.”

Michael says he’s a firm believer in the old adage, what goes around, comes around.

“The more you help, the more it’s going to come back,” he says. “And that’s why, with all my heart, I believe that the reason I had so much help and support after…the day…I mean the day after the fire was because people knew that hey, this is a good guy.”

“Because, if you’re a bad person and you hurt somebody and you hurt other people, it’ll eventually come around. But if you try to help, if you try to be a good samaritan, in the best way that you can, to the best of your abilities, it’s gonna come back to you and it’s gonna come back to you when you need it the most.

“I believe that with all my heart. And that’s what happened to me.”

The fire may have destroyed everything that Michael Javier owned but it could not break his spirit or damage his heart. Those remain as big and generous as they ever have. So he’ll be there at Storybook Ranch every day. He’ll be there in September to perform Holly’s wedding ceremony.

He’ll help Storybook rebuild a new building on top of the ash that was his whole world. He’ll be there all day for the kids. He’ll teach them and guide them and show them how magical a horse can be. He’ll be there for the weddings and the parties. He’ll help everyone because he knows that the more you help, the more it’s going to come back to you.

He’ll work all day, take off his boots, take off his hat, take off his jacket, and turn on his TV. He’ll sit back, relax and eventually he’ll fall asleep. And he’ll wake up the next day, excited about what’s to come and who he can help today.

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