Effie Caldarola

On the morning of Jan. 5, a fire tore through a Philadelphia rowhouse that had been converted into apartments. Twelve people died, including nine children.

Probably most Americans heard the news, then moved on to the next big story. Perhaps the situation on the Ukrainian border grabbed our attention or the filibuster fight or the horror of yet another, bigger apartment fire, this one in the Bronx.

But then my daughter told me what I’d missed.

“Did you know that the 5-year-old boy who was playing with a lighter, which started the Christmas tree on fire, made it out of the building alive?”

I felt like someone had punched me. No, I didn’t realize a 5-year-old likely caused the Philadelphia fire, survived, and told authorities what had happened. And after investigation, officials believe that the evidence corroborates his story.


My heart broke for that 5-year-old. What would this burden do to his life? In the span of moments, the trajectory of his future curved into something unimaginable.

He must have known all the victims. Some of them were probably playmates, and worse, perhaps some were his immediate family.

He’ll probably live his life in proximity to this community. People may always define him as “the boy who …” That’s what he may imagine them thinking. Hopefully, that’s not how he will define himself.

I confess, my first reaction was to be angry with God. How could God permit such a thing?

But there was horror all around — for the victims, their families, the other survivors. Beyond that, every day there are victims of violence, war, accidents, overdoses, suicide.

Why did God’s absence seem so stark in this case? Perhaps because my son was once 5, or maybe because tragedy became so real in the person of one little guy wandering around the house in the early morning whose curiosity would forever change his life.

The world’s cruelty suddenly seemed encapsulated in his story. Where were you, God?

I found solace in an excellent column written by Helen Ubiñas in the Jan. 12 Philadelphia Inquirer. She had the exact concerns for the child as I did.

This led her to visit the website, “Accidental Impacts,” which provides support to people who deal with a death or injury they have unintentionally caused. Think, for example, of a woman backing out of a parking space who has no idea a 2-year-old has just run behind her car.

Ubiñas spoke with one of the group’s board members, an Episcopal priest named David Peters, who as a teenager accidentally killed a motorcyclist with his car. I was moved to realize how people respond to tragedy, often because of their own grief, by doing good.

Peters agreed that the child would need tremendous support. And, he mentioned the biblical “cities of refuge.”

I visited Exodus 21:13. Mosaic law permitted murderers to be executed, but in the case of accidental death, the perpetrator could find safety from vengeance in one of six specified cities.

Ubiñas suggested that her city, Philadelphia, should be a “city of refuge” for all children.

Life is full of mystery and sometimes faith is challenging. But the God in whom I believe is not a controlling God, but a God who suffers with us and holds our sorrow. Jesus, on a hillside filled with hungry people, told his disciples, “Give them some food yourselves” (Lk 9:13).

We live in a broken world, and the God who mourns with a devastated 5-year-old challenges us to fix things. It’s a huge task, one step at a time, but the Lord walks with us.