The grieving widow called Monday night, less than two days after her husband had died in a fire.
She called because she’d heard I was writing about Steve Youngs. She wanted to make sure I got it right.
“I don’t think I ever had a mean word for him,” Susan Youngs told me. “And he never had a mean word for me.”
Everything here is shocking. There’s the fire that swept through the 18th-century farmhouse in Webster early Sunday morning that killed Youngs, a doctor with tons of education and a million hobbies.
There’s the eight people escaping into the cold while the house burned into ash and rubble and debris, turning it into a scene that resembled a terrorist attack, or a residence in London during World War II.
There’s the utter joy of a huge dinner party that had been held the night before, and the solidarity shown on Little Hill Road, simply called The Hill by those who live on this off-the-beaten-path. That means you belong there. That means you’re part of something.
And there was the composure of a woman still freshly wounded by the unthinkable, with her youngest of three daughters, 24-year-old Merike Youngs, adding input in the background.
A picture needed to be painted, and it needed to be painted accurately. Pain be damned.
The fatality was accidental, officials announced earlier Monday. The investigation is over, and the origin and cause of the fire are undetermined “due to the extensive fire damage to the residence,” a press release from the Division of Fire Safety said.
Two people were injured, including Rundlett Middle School Assistant Principal Ann Rines. She remains in the hospital after suffering smoke inhalation and second-degree burns to her hands and face, her longtime partner, Leslie Combs, told me late Monday night. He said he’s confident she’ll make a full recovery.
Speaking about his late friend, Combs, a retired employment consultant, told me, “He was dedicated to family; he was dedicated to friends. He was the kind of man I wanted to be when I grow up.”
That’s why Susan called. She told me they met when both were in graduate school in Washington state, during a visit with friends to the Pacific coast. They were engaged two months later, married six months after that. They lived in Penacook from 1990 to 2009, then moved to Webster.
Susan wanted me to know that Steven was a civil engineer who began medical school in his 40s and got his license to practice at age 50. She wanted me to know he had a master’s degree in geology and water resources management. She wanted me to know he was a family practice physician and the medical director of HealthFirst Family Care Center, which has offices in Franklin and Laconia.
And she wanted me to know about what she called his “toys.”
“Toys as in a tractor and a wood splitter,” Susan said. “Once we got into the country, he learned how to tap maple trees and he bought a small evaporator so we made our own maple syrup, and he picked lots of blackberries and made blackberry wine, and he built a cider press from a kit and fermented it to make hard cider. And he loved brewing his own beer.”
Items like homemade syrup and homemade beer mean a lot on The Hill. Neighbor Buddy Stone gave Steven some of his own maple syrup shortly after the Youngses moved in.
“I welcomed him to The Hill,” Stone told me, standing outside his home on a slate-gray morning. “He looked at me with this thoughtful expression, then turned away and came back with a six-pack of his own beer. I never got to sit down and have a beer with him. Time goes by, I guess.”
In time, Steven and Susan, a teacher at Southern New Hampshire University, expanded their property to 239 acres, a majority of which is now protected from development by a conservation easement. They installed solar panels, which supplied most of their electricity.
They planted roots, literally and figuratively, and they loved their friends.
That’s why they had 19 people in their dining room Saturday night. Some were part of Susan’s singing group, the Concord Vocal Octet. It had become a tradition at the farmhouse, a weekend of snowshoeing and cross country skiing and jigsaw puzzles and singing.
Seven people slept over. The fire started shortly before 3 a.m. “My daughter heard the smoke alarm and woke us up,” Susan said. “It was so fast, the way the fire progressed. Had it been a minute or two longer, I don’t think any of us would have made it out.”
Steven raced out of bed and ran down a nearby staircase, into the heart of the fire, toward some of his guests. Susan tried to follow behind, but the heat and smoke were impassable, so she turned and ran down a different set of stairs.
“His motive would have been to do the right thing and get help,” Susan said. ‘I’ve got to get those people out of the house.’ ”
Eight made it out. A strong wind swept down from the mountain, feeding the flames. Thirteen towns responded. Susan and her children gathered across the street later Sunday, at the home of Matt and Leah Fallon, whose 12-year-old daughter, Liz, had fed the Youngs’ two cats when they’d travel.
Here’s where Little Hill Road turned into The Hill. Residents brought gift certificates, clothing, pens and paper. Someone donated a nearby cottage, shelter until Susan can figure out what hit her and what to do about it.
Still, her voice never cracked during our interview. Not once. She said her Norwegian roots have created a shield, something to capture her tears.
“There’s sort of a joke about Norwegians,” Susan told me. “They are stoic and they don’t show a lot of emotion. I’m not a very publicly emotional person.”
She said her guard slips now and then, from something as simple as picking up a prescription.
“What brings tears to my eyes is when I walk into places like Penacook Pharmacy today and everyone has been so generous and helpful,” she said. “That’s what I appreciate so much.”
Her control is startling. So much is gone, her husband and her home. There’s nothing left, not a photo or a statue or anything resembling a stick of furniture.
Instead, there are six charred cars out front and a big, beautiful, historical colonial that has been virtually leveled. The fire spread fast to the road, spiraling up a tree and torching a car there, the heat so intense that four phone lines melted.
And yet, Susan Youngs called me. She got word someone wanted to write a story about what happened, and she never thought twice about it, never hesitated, never cried, never skipped a beat.
“He deserves a story,” Youngs told me. “He really was very kind to everyone.”