‘Treasure the time that we have’

By Terri Lynn Oldham House

One year ago Sunday, Oct. 11, Pagosa Country was shaken both literally and figuratively; for miles, people heard the explosion and felt their homes rock.

Within seconds, Electra Churchill dialed 911 for help. She was trapped in the structure that exploded and burst into flames in the Timber Ridge Ranch subdivision that Friday. She heroically called dispatchers to send help to rescue her and the love of her life, Fred Phillips, who had also been in the structure before the blast.

There are times when a dispatcher takes a 911 call that they have the solemn honor and great burden of listening to the last words of the dying as a part of their job description. And so it was that night.

That dispatcher also has the tremendous responsibility of directing the other first responders. We listened as pages went out quickly for emergency personnel and there were a lot of heroes who came to the rescue.

People near the explosion rushed to the scene and pulled Fred from the fire. Although he suffered great trauma and severe burns, he was able to inform that Electra was still in the structure. 

Pagosa Fire Protection District firefighters, Upper Pine River Fire Protection District firefighters, Pagosa Springs Medical Center EMS personnel, Archuleta County sheriff’s deputies and Pagosa Springs Police Department (PSPD) officers began arriving and rescue efforts were underway within minutes of Electra’s and others’ 911 calls.

Heroic efforts were made to fight the flames and to find Electra in the collapsed structure and debris. However, as the tragedy unfolded, it became clear that the call Electra made for help was most likely some of her final words. 

Heroic words.

Fred was transported to Pagosa Springs Medical Center, where emergency room doctors and staff continued lifesaving efforts.

He was later transferred into the hands of the Classic Air Medical team and was flown to a Denver-area hospital in critical condition.

The loss of Electra was excruciatingly devastating to our first responders and our community.

For our emergency personnel, there were only a few days following the traumatic explosion when another page went out for a man who was hit by a vehicle while riding his bicycle.

Once again, most of the above-mentioned agencies rushed to help. Marcel Barel, of Pagosa Springs, was transported to Colorado Springs Memorial Central Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries that night. 

When dispatchers, firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency personnel are on the job, their workday hinges on matters of life and death. These heroic men and women put their own safety at risk to protect ours. They leave the house every day not knowing if they will return.

Working in emergency services can be a heavy burden to bear; outcomes, such as the loss of Electra and Marcel, have a huge emotional impact on those who worked the incidents, from the initial 911 calls to Archuleta County Combined Dispatch to Coroner Brandon Bishop making the call to the family of Electra to inform them of her unfathomable passing and to our coroner advocates who assisted in the aftermath. 

A year later, our community is still healing from the trauma.

In a card of thanks in this week’s paper, Marcel Barel’s family extends their heartfelt thanks “to everyone in the community who were so very helpful, supportive and thoughtful in this difficult time. To the 911 caller, first responders, PSPD officers Hancey and Spangler, PFPD firefighters and EMTs, CSP Trooper/Investigator Parsons, CDOT, Rhonda Webb and all the medical personnel, social workers and advocates at PSMC, and the flight crew, we thank you all for your kindness. We are forever grateful.”

On Sunday evening, one year to the day of her death, many local first responders and friends of Electra and Fred gathered in her honor at a memorial garden created at the site of last year’s tragic explosion.

It was a time of healing.

“One year ago today was the worst day of my life, and a lot of these people here were with me that day, and not only were they with me, but they helped me survive. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today, talking to you,” said Fred at the gathering. “And so, I’ve had one year to think about why I’m here today and Electra’s not.

“There are a lot of reasons I am here … but one of those reasons is to be able to tell Electra’s story. 

“Electra was a tough girl. … As many of you know, she had the presence of mind in the belly of this beast to pick up her phone and call 911. If it were not for her calling that rapidly, I, myself, might not have made it out of here.” He continued, “A few things about Electra, we know she was strong, but she was the kindest person. She loved nature, she loved animals and we know she loved birds and she liked people.

“I’ll tell you this. She loved Pagosa Springs more than anything. She absolutely loved this place, but the thing that I remember most about her is her love for life.”

Fred went on to describe Electra’s happiness and joy in living a full life.

“I think that maybe that God gave Electra a promotion, moved her up the ladder, moved her up to the home office. To spread joy, not just to you, but to many because she was joy personified,” he said. “So, the only thing that is missing here tonight is Electra.”

Fred then knelt down at the waterfall,  “I’m going to take the liberty to let Electra participate with us.” 

With that, he sprinkled Electra’s ashes in the cascading waterfall that was built as part of the memorial garden in her honor. 

“So, if all of you with me would raise your hand and say, ‘Welcome home, Electra.’”

The group followed Fred’s lead.

“At last for all of those who cannot sing, who died with their music still inside of them,” Fred continued. “Let’s treasure the time that we have and resolve to use it well, holding each moment precious, a time to apprehend some truth, experience some beauty, relieve some suffering, conquer some evil, a chance to love and be loved and have a meaningful life forever.” 

This story was posted on October 15, 2020.