On this national day of gratitude some 11 weeks past the initial night of terror and tragedy wrought by the Valley fire, a handyman, singer/songwriter and accidental hero named Steve Shurelian misses some of what he lost, nothing more so than his cat, Kit.
At the same time, Shurelian, 61, tells of feeling thankful for what — and who — he was able to save. Though the former resident of the almost entirely incinerated Anderson Springs neighborhood appreciates the praise and donations he has received for what he did there the fiery evening of Sept. 12, he asks not to be over-adulated.
He did evacuate and find hasty shelter for himself and a disabled neighbor, Jim Young, who was in stark peril. And he did use a pair of garden hoses to dampen buildings in Anderson Springs’ beloved, poolside recreation center — community structures that might otherwise have burned.
But Shurelian, a Vietnam-era Army veteran and ex-Philadelphia drug addict who found peace and purpose in Anderson Springs and the nearby, now-ruined Harbin Hot Springs resort, points out there’d have been no need for heroics had he simply heeded the warnings and left his rented home earlier on the afternoon the fire started.
“The reason Jim and I were left behind is we procrastinated,” he said. He’s also straight-up about the fact that when he sprayed water on Anderson Springs’ treasured and historic rec center, he was intent not so much on saving it as on saving himself and Young as they hunkered there.
“It’s not like I went into a burning house and saved a baby,” he said.
Still, former Anderson Springs neighbors and strangers have expressed their gratitude to Shurelian through tributes and gifts that include cash, a pickup and tools to replace he ones he lost to the fire.
Angelo Parisi, a postal carrier whose Anderson Springs home was reduced to ash by the September firestorm, figures that if it was poor decision-making by Shurelian that forced him to seek refuge at the rec center and it was purely the survival instinct that prompted him to spray water on the snack shack and bathrooms, so what?
“He’d made mistakes and found himself in a bad situation, and yet there he was, doing what he did,” Parisi said.
He called Shurelian “a really kind, thoughtful and humble guy” whose actions the night of Sept. 12 saved Jim Young and gave many horrified and heartsick Anderson Springs residents their initial glimmer of hope when they realized that their rec center had survived. The people of Anderson Springs lost two neighbors and most of their homes to the Valley fire, which killed four people , burned more than 76,000 acres and a total of 1,280 homes.
“It was the first bright light any of us saw in that disaster,” Parisi said.
“That center is the reason we all know each other,” the postman said. Prior to the fire, he said, “You get home from work and head down to the rec center.”
Thanks to Shurelian, he said, “The heart of the place is still there.”
Love for little haven
Ironically, Shurelian had never spent time at the community center alongside Anderson Creek, though his daily walks took him right past it. As a single man, a musician and someone who prizes silence, he wasn’t much drawn to the swimming, games and potlucks.