Three days after his father died from a brain bleed, Dwain Diehl was at his mother’s house in Hutchinson planning the funeral.
His cell rang at 2:56 p.m. – yes, he remembers the exact time. His 16-year-old daughter, Chelsea, was calling from their home in Derby.
“She was screaming. I couldn’t understand her at first,” Diehl said. “She finally said, ‘Fire!’ ”
The house was engulfed in flames, and Chelsea was still inside. It was March 31.
Diehl has awakened every March 31 for more than a decade knowing exactly what that date meant. It was on that day in 2002 that his 18-month-old daughter, Emily, died in her sleep from a seizure disorder.
But when Chelsea’s screams came over the phone last week, he didn’t flash back to that day 12 years ago.
“It soaked in later that night,” Diehl said. “But at that moment, I was just focused on Chelsea. Even Dad went out the window.”
There was chaos at Diehl’s home, and he was 60 miles away. But he’s also a 19-year veteran of the Wichita Police Department, the last four as a detective with the sex crimes and domestic violence unit.
Sorting through chaos is what he does for a living. Those instincts kicked in.
So did his faith. Especially his faith.
“I wasn’t sure how,” Diehl said, “but I trusted God would bring us through this one way or another.”
The fire erupted in the 1600 block of East Cresthill in Derby, southwest of Rock Road and James, after Diehl’s neighbor accidentally spilled gasoline on his lawn mower. Flames shot out of the mower when he started it, Derby fire officials said.
Winds of more than 40 mph whipped the flames, catching the first house on fire and quickly spreading next door to the Diehls’ house.
Chelsea had left Derby High School early so she would have time to get to Hutchinson to attend the 5 p.m. visitation at the funeral home.
She was in the basement wearing headphones and watching a movie on her laptop, waiting for her mother to pick her up, when she heard what she thought was the refrigerator’s ice machine making a popping sound.
By the time she reached the top step, flames were coming through the windows and reaching the ceiling.
Derby police Officer Amanda Boatwright responded to the fire call and knocked on the door repeatedly. No one answered.
Diehl thinks his daughter was probably in shock.
Boatwright kept pounding on the door. Chelsea answered and got out of the house.
“She wouldn’t have lasted much longer,” Diehl said. “Fire had already burned through the closet by the front door. God had his hand of protection on her.”
By the time he arrived from Hutchinson, his house and his neighbor’s house were smoldering rubble.
“All I could think about was running and giving my daughter a hug,” he said. “God has given us this gift of relationships with people.
“Enjoy those relationships while you have them. You can’t buy time together. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
A destroyed house was small stuff at that moment. Never mind that he and his wife, Karen, had a contract to sell the house and were set to close on the deal later this month.
Forget his Harley-Davidson motorcycle that sat in the garage, destroyed and covered with burned rubble.
“It’s just stuff,” said Diehl, who is president of a Wichita chapter of the Christian Motorcyclists Association.
He has seen plenty of difficult stuff.
In his job, he said, he’s “seen more than anyone should have to see.”
Diehl and his first wife, Rita, had two children, Chelsea and Emily. When Emily died of a seizure, his faith was shaken.
“I was angry at God,” he said. “You just want to punch the walls.”
But he chose to stand firm, allowing his faith to keep him moving forward.
His 74-year-old father spent six days in a Wichita hospital before the family decided to take him off life support on March 28.
Two days earlier, Gary Diehl was awake enough that he could listen to his son’s words and respond.
“We talked about the Lord,” Diehl said, “and I asked him if he was willing to accept the Lord. He opened his eyes, nodded and tears came down his cheek.
“I was so happy. I wanted to jump up and down with joy.”
Earlier this week, Diehl and his uncle, Jim Helton, picked through rubble at the house, trying to itemize the loss for the insurance company.
Most of Diehl’s clothes were destroyed in the fire, so he wore some of his father’s shirts and jeans. Even if they were too small.
He found a yellow Big Bird, Emily’s favorite toy. It was partially melted.
“We won’t keep it,” he said.
Officials told Diehl the fire burned at more than 3,000 degrees as it destroyed both houses, leaving a toxic element on almost everything and making it unsafe.
“We probably won’t keep most of this stuff,” he added. “I don’t need it. Memories are what I carry around in my heart.
“Everything we have here on earth is on loan from God. That’s just the way it is.”
He took a break from sorting one day this week to have lunch with his neighbor, Gary Kilian, the one who had the mower mishap.
Kilian repeatedly apologized to Diehl.
“I love my neighbor. Great guy,” Diehl said. “I told him it was just an accident. It could happen to anybody.
“Some people would have been hacked off, looked back at preventive measures. I always look forward.”
For now, that means living in a duplex in Derby. He figures it’ll take about a year to get the insurance settlement resolved so his family can buy a new house.
“We want to stay in Derby,” he said.
That’s particularly important for Chelsea.
“She’s been through a lot,” Diehl said. “The fire, losing her grandfather. She’s carrying a lot on her shoulders.”
As for himself, he’s taking stock of what he has – strong support from the Police Department and others in the community – and smiling.
“Look at all the blessings,” Diehl said. “I told my neighbor, ‘You’re here, my daughter is here. It doesn’t get any better than that.’
“We have to live each day to each moment, not to each day.”
That’s how you survive.
“Yeah, I’ve had a couple of bad things happen to me, at least things you might think are bad,” Diehl said. “But Emily is in heaven, my dad is in heaven and I have my family. No one got hurt.
“If I look at it that way, it’s comforting. God has given me comfort. I smile. I don’t have any problem smiling.”