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Community is magical, intangible, vital thing

We didn't get casseroles or condolences. We got an astonishing outpouring of hard work.

After the fire was out, when the fire inspector gave us the OK to go in, I opened the front door and waded in through the ankle-deep creek of sooty water that rushed out. Less than two minutes behind me, before I could catch my breath, a handful of neighbors slipped in, mops in hand, and got to work.

Within an hour there were 30 friends and neighbors in our house. None of them asked if they could help. They just showed up with mops, buckets, shop vacs, towels, flashlights, tarps -- anything they had to dry the house.

Thirty people, some of whom we had never met before, mopped, bailed and worked in concert for hours, uncomplaining, until there was no more they could do. Our house is filled with irreplaceable 120-year-old woodwork. They saved that woodwork from the garbage dump.

Much of those first hours after the fire trucks left is a blur in my mind. In part, my memory fails me because there was so much I didn't have to do. My neighbors did it for me. But my neighbors were not the only people who dazzled me that afternoon. What will always stand out, no matter how often I remember this story, is how the firemen surprised us.

We, as a city, ask our firefighters to do the unthinkable. We ask them to go into a house that is on fire. For my family, they did way beyond even that enormous task. Where they could, they covered our furniture with tarps. Where they knew from experience water was most likely to fall, they placed our extra storage bins, to catch the water and save the floors.

Later in the evening, the fire chief stopped back after his shift ended to check on us. He told us that they purposely didn't break down our carved wooden front door or any of our windows, something I have since learned is rare.

"We took one look at this house and knew we had to save what we could," he told me. When we went later to their station to thank the firefighters, they let my 5-year-old try on their boots (which went up to her hips) and "drive" the truck, turning the flashing lights on and everything! That is light years more than they had to do.

There is the obvious, and wonderful, side to this -- that the people in Buffalo are good people. My family has been the recipient of breath-taking, chest-aching goodwill and generosity. I cannot believe, though, that my neighbors, especially those who were previously strangers, came to help only out of charity.

I believe that my Buffalo neighborhood is a neighborhood in the truest sense. The people who live around me, and the firefighters who work for my city, understand that community is a magical, intangible, vital thing. They know -- we all know -- we're in this together, this place we live in, whether we've met or not.

I think they know that the best things this city has are its wonderful people and its beautiful architecture, and that both of those things are worth working hard to preserve. I think that's why they came.

To the people in my neighborhood who helped without hesitation, to the people from every corner of Buffalo who continue to give us consistent and generous support, and to the people in other Buffalo neighborhoods who do the big and small things that make a community a community, I thank you.

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