[SPOILER ALERT: The following post contains spoilers from last night’s episode of “This Is Us.”]
The episode of NBC’s hit television show “This Is Us” that aired last night after the Super Bowl gave viewers some long-awaited — or perhaps more accurately, long-dreaded — answers about how character Jack Pearson died. The plot of the episode delivered some powerfully emotional moments, but there is a vitally important fire safety lesson that unfortunately the show seems to have missed an opportunity to share.
Now, I write this as someone who has seen every episode — including the aftershows — and absolutely adores this show. Still, last night’s episode frustrated me for its failure on a very important issue.
To recap: On Super Bowl Sunday in 1998, the Pearson family went to sleep upstairs in their two-story home. A previous episode had established that Jack and Rebecca Pearson had forgotten to replace the batteries in their smoke detector, so when a kitchen fire started downstairs, it quickly spread (Friendly reminder that the show is fiction and you should not throw out your Crock Pot).
The fire was only discovered by chance when Jack woke up in the middle of the night to get some water. After several harrowing minutes getting Kate and Randall from their bedrooms, and confirming that eldest son Kevin was not at home, Jack helped his wife and children out his bedroom window, on to the roof, and lowered them safely to the ground with a tied-up bedsheet. Just as he was getting ready to jump down himself, Kate’s dog was heard barking inside, she screamed, and Jack turned around and went back inside the house.
— Dan Fogelman (@Dan_Fogelman) February 5, 2018
Amazingly, Jack makes it out the front door with not only Kate’s little dog, but also a pillowcase with several mementos — a photo album, the moon necklace he had given Rebecca, a box of cards and drawings the kids had given him, and the videotape he took of Kate’s audition song for her Berklee College of Music application.
[No turning back now — major spoiler coming up.]
Jack has burns on his hands and arms and smoke inhalation. He is treated at the scene by paramedics, then he and Rebecca take the kids to Miguel’s, and they finally go to the hospital to get Jack checked out further.
At the hospital, the doctor tells Jack that he seems to be recuperating well, but he did suffer severe smoke inhalation. Sadly, while Rebecca is making phone calls to get hotel rooms for her family, Jack has a massive heart attack and dies. The smoke damage had put his lungs — and therefore his heart — under too much stress and his body couldn’t take it anymore.
It was devastating…but it was also preventable.
Jack Pearson broke our hearts because he broke the most important rule for fires: Save People, Not Stuff.
Fire is vicious and unpredictable and can spread with terrifying speed. Once you are in the terrible scenario of trying to escape a burning building, there is no time to do anything other than get yourself and all other people outside and away from the fire as quickly as possible.
Jack died because he 1) went back in the house for the dog and 2) spent additional, unnecessary time inside to pick up the mementos he put in the pillowcase.
That first part pains me to write, but it’s true. I’m writing this with an orange tabby named Queso adopted from Austin Animal Center asleep at my feet, and a little foster kitten named after Bob Dylan sleeping next to him. I understand the love we all have for our pets, but going back into a house engulfed in flames for the dog was foolishly risky. It’s understandable, though, in the stress of the moment, why a father might take such a risk. As Jack said, he loved the girl who loved the dog.
What was worse, though, was the time Jack took to gather all the mementos he put in that pillowcase. It’s never explained explicitly, but there’s no way those items were all together. The videotape might have been in Kate’s room or downstairs by the television, Rebecca’s necklace on her nightstand, etc. How many minutes did Jack spend wandering around a house engulfed in flames, breathing in deadly smoke, to pick up this stuff?
“I got the important stuff,” Jack tells Rebecca, as he sits in an ambulance with an oxygen mask and severe burns on his hands and arms.
No, Jack. No you didn’t.
Because none of that stuff was important. It was just stuff.
Kate has the video her Dad made of her singing, and she has treasured watching that video ever since he died. But wouldn’t she rather have had her Dad there to see her continue to write and sing new songs? Kate never sang that song in public again — Toby mentions he had never heard it — and apparently didn’t attend Berklee either. There’s no way a videotape is an adequate substitute for all those dashed dreams.
And Rebecca has a photo album and the moon necklace. You know she would rather have had her husband and been able to take new photos and exchange new gifts.
The Pearson family got a bag of memorabilia. They would have rather had years of new memories with the father they loved so dearly.
“This Is Us” is a fictional show, of course, but house fires are an all-too-real risk. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments in the United States responded to an estimated 365,500 home structure fires in 2015. These fires involved $7 billion in direct damage — and sadly, 2,560 deaths and an additional 11.075 injuries.
That means, on average, seven Americans die in home fires every day.
Organizations like the NFPA and Red Cross have lots of fire safety tips online, but the most important thing they emphasize is GET OUT AND STAY OUT. Even with a properly working smoke alarm, there are usually only a few minutes to escape a burning home.
I would encourage all of you to read the information on these websites in detail and discuss with your families, but here are a few of important points:
- Smoke detectors: Have multiple ones on every floor of the house, and make sure they are audible in all bedrooms. Instead of waiting for batteries to die and need replacing, the better practice is to replace them twice a year the same day you change your clocks for Daylight Saving Time. Those smoke detectors are life and death for your family and it is not the time to be cheap about the batteries. Put brand new batteries in the smoke detectors and use the ones you take out for other items around your home. (Orlando and many other cities have programs where they will donate a smoke detector if you need one.)
- Have a plan: Make sure everyone in the home knows escape routes and practices them. Because you cannot predict how a fire might start and spread, you need to practice different ways out. If you have a multistory home, figure out how you will get out if you can’t use the stairs. Pick a meeting place that is set back from the house. If you have family members who will need assistance — very young children, elderly, disabled, etc. — practice evacuating them too.
- Treat injuries seriously: Injuries from fires like burns and smoke inhalation can be more dangerous than they seem at first, as Jack’s tragic story makes all too clear. Cool tap water (not ice!) applied quickly to a burn can help minimize its severity, but a burn is an injury that takes time to develop and the risk of infection is high. The oxygen deprivation and stress from smoke inhalation has a substantial impact on major organs like the lungs and heart. Any of these injuries should always be taken seriously and examined by a medical professional, even if you don’t initially feel that bad.
And, most importantly, GET OUT (AND STAY OUT!) OF BURNING BUILDINGS. Get out, get away from the fire, and do not go back in.
Remember, your family loves you more than any of the stuff in your home. Losing the stuff can be inconvenient or sad, but losing a person is a tragedy.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.