Mother who survived deadly Orrington fire now ‘empty, alone and lost,’ but trying to move on

Christine Johnson (center) was the only survivor of the fatal Orrington fire that killed her husband Ben Johnson III (second from right) and their children Leslie, Benjamin Johnson IV and Ryan (from left in front).
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Christine Johnson (center) was the only survivor of the fatal Orrington fire that killed her husband Ben Johnson III (second from right) and their children Leslie, Benjamin Johnson IV and Ryan (from left in front).
Posted Dec. 05, 2012, at 3:32 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 06, 2012, at 5:15 p.m.

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The house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington as seen in Nov. 2012.
The house at 580 Dow Road in Orrington as seen in Nov. 2012. Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — The mother of three who lost her children and her husband in a deadly Orrington house fire nearly a month ago says she has “to leave the past in the past” in order to heal, and she is urging people to cherish every moment life has to offer.

“Coming out of a situation that was terrifying will make you realize that all of the small things you were worried about are insignificant,” Christine Johnson wrote in a letter to the Bangor Daily News that she asked to be shared with the community. “The most important thing is to live life to the fullest, and never take anything for granted. Life is not a right, or privilege. It is a blessing, because every day you leave your house, you run the risk of never returning. Every night you go to sleep, you could end up staying asleep forever. You never know how precious life really is until you’ve lost everything that is important to you.”

Her husband, Ben Johnson III, heard the fire alarm going off early Nov. 10 and saved Christine Johnson ’s life by putting her out a window onto the roof, his father said days after the fire. Her husband then turned back into the thick, black smoke in an attempt to save their children, who were in another upstairs bedroom.

“He took one deep breath and said I have to go after my children and that was the last thing,” Orland resident Benjamin Johnson II said of his son.

Ben Johnson III, 30; Ben Johnson IV, 9; Ryan Johnson, 4; and the couple’s 8-year-old daughter, Leslie, died from smoke inhalation in the blaze, which was reported at 2:38 a.m. The fire started because cardboard was stored too close to the downstairs wood stove used to heat the foreclosed house the Johnsons were in the process of buying, according to the state fire marshal’s office.

“I feel like a walking shell: empty, alone and lost,” the grieving mother said in the letter to the BDN. “I still feel the love I had for my husband, but there is no one to return it. No one to comfort me, no one to wrap their arms around me and say, ‘I’ve got you, baby doll, I’ve got you.’

“No one to chase the nightmares away, or snuggle with on the couch after the kids have gone to sleep,” she wrote. “And no one to tell me a joke when I’m crying, just so they can see me smile. My husband loved to make me smile. He said it was because my eyes would sparkle … Now my eyes sparkle no more.”

Her husband was a local bowler and former bowling coach, and worked two jobs as a card dealer at Hollywood Casino and restocking shelves at the Bangor Walmart Supercenter. His son Ben was in fourth grade and his daughter Leslie was a third-grader at Center Drive School in Orrington, but both also had attended other schools in the area. Christine Johnson is an author who in October celebrated the release of her paranormal fantasy novel, “ The Quest for the Enchanted Stone.” She was a stay-at-home mom for her youngest child, Ryan.

The deaths of her children have left her devastated.

“I don’t get to see my children’s smile, or hear their laughter,” Johnson’s letter said. “I will never get to dance around the kitchen to music with them. There’s no more bedtime stories, or family movie night. No more taking my babies to the bounce house in Brewer, and watching my daughter get on [the] one that takes you up in the air. No more riding bikes with them, or helping them with their homework.”

She wrote that she “would give anything to be able to do those things with them again.”

When asked, Johnson said she didn’t want to talk about the night when her whole world changed. She said she is trying to take small steps forward by letting go of the things she cannot change.

“A damaged soul is something that can’t be repaired. No matter what anyone says, it will never heal,” Johnson wrote in her letter.

She said she must “let go of everything and not dwell on what could have, should have, or would have been.”

“You can’t change the past, only live for the future, and what it might show you,” her letter states. “When you survive something, like I have, it opens your eyes to the important things, and the miracles that happen every day.”

What happened last month has changed her perspective on what truly matters in life, Johnson wrote. The most precious gift people have is their time, she said, and no action a person takes is meaningless.

“Family and friends are the most important part of your life,” Johnson wrote. “Make time for them. Even if it is only for 10 minutes. That’s something that, later, you are not going to sit and think, ‘I wish I would have done this instead.’”

Nowadays, the widow hugs everyone she knows, “because you know that, someday, they could be taken from you, too.”

Without her three children, life now seems to have little or no meaning, Johnson wrote.

“My children are the ones I will forever cry over,” she said in the letter.

“For they are the ones who never had a chance at life. They never got to go on a boat, or ride a roller coaster. They never got to see Disney World, or Niagara Falls. They never got to ride on a plane to some far off land, or see a real, live moose.”

“My youngest didn’t even get to ride a school bus, and I remember him getting excited about the chance to get on one,” Johnson added. “My daughter never got the dance lessons that she wanted. My oldest never got to build the flying car that he kept bragging he was going to make.”

It is the terrible loss that she has experienced that is behind Johnson’s desire to tell others that every second with a child is precious.

“Hold your children tight, love them with every ounce of love you have to offer, and give them all of the free time you have,” she wrote. “They are small, defenseless babies who look to us for guidance, protection and love.”

Johnson ended her letter by saying how grateful she was for the support given to her and her family.

“I want to thank everyone, from the bottom of my heart, for helping me in my time of need,” she said. “You’ll never truly know how much it means to me that I have so many people behind me. I only hope, after reading this, that you continue to believe in me.”

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