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Ray Duckler: Despite fire, law student saves laptop and takes the bar

Brendon Thurston, a UNH law student from Manchester, lost most everything in a fire the day before taking the bar exam. His friends have rallied around him raising funds to help him back on his feet. 

Courtesy photo

Brendon Thurston, a UNH law student from Manchester, lost most everything in a fire the day before taking the bar exam. His friends have rallied around him raising funds to help him back on his feet. Courtesy photo

His cat, soaking wet and smelling like smoke, hid under the bed and survived.

His laptop, covered in soot and smelling like smoke, hid under law textbooks, thick like Big Macs, and survived as well.

Brendon Thurston?

The law student survived, too, awoken at 3 a.m. to flames and smoke and danger. He and his fiancee bolted from their Manchester apartment, returning after firefighters had doused the flames.

It was only then, with the sun up, that Thurston realized he had a chance to take the bar exam, scheduled for July 30-31, the two days following the fire.

Allowed back inside to recover what he could, Thurston grabbed his computer, and when he turned it on . . .

. . . His law career had not gone up in flames. His computer, registered with the Bar Association, still worked, and it was the only means by which Thurston could take the exam after his final semester at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord.

Well, there was another way, but that method had last been used during the Jurassic Age.

“Without my own laptop, I would have had to hand-write the exam,” said Thurston, 26. “The last time I had hand-written something was in high school. If I had to handwrite the bar, it would have been a big problem.”

Now he waits until the results are announced in October. Meanwhile, he’ll live in Manchester with his girlfriend, in an apartment provided by his landlord, next door to the one that burned.

He’ll probably hold more appreciation for his cat, Ava, and dog, Leah, whom he carried out of the apartment the night of the fire.

And he’ll reflect on his good fortune.

The couple got out alive.

He took the test.

And he’s got a support system, from friends, fellow students and the law school itself, all of which have joined in efforts to raise money for the basics lost in the fire.

So far, in just one week, $975 has been raised. The money will be given to Thurston on Aug. 31.

“The school and my friends and the people who stepped up, I’ve never been in a situation like this, like you see on TV,” Thurston said. “You feel like you’re on your own, and I never thought the school would take any action. The faculty members offered furniture and housewares, and they did fundraising.”

His close friends, fellow law students Brian Keber, raised in Idaho, now living in Concord, and Kyle Robidas of the North Country, who now lives in Epsom, are part of this mix.

The momentum they created moved like the fire itself.

“Kyle and I began calling the dean and others,” Keber said. “We didn’t want to bother Brendon because of the bar coming up, so we started calling people and told them what happened.”

Thurston had finished an externship program at a law firm, then began the arduous task of studying for the bar. He registered his laptop with the bar, which would add software to make it impossible to research online while taking the test.

In other words, he had to use his computer and no one else’s.

He studied about 60 hours per week in June, then topped 80 hours a week through July.

The day before the test, a two-day, 12-hour marathon of essays and law principles, Thurston and Crystal were sleeping.

It was 3 in the morning when Leah started barking and wouldn’t stop. Thurston looked out the front door and saw an orange glow reflecting off the trees.

Then he noticed the apartment next door was on fire, burning from the ground straight through to the attic, above the fourth floor.

“We grabbed some clothes to put on, grabbed Leah and we were looking for Ava,” Thurston said. “The cat was hiding somewhere. We couldn’t find the cat. We could feel the apartment getting hot. We could smell the smoke. We had to go.”

On their way out, the couple punched and kicked apartment doors (the hallway alarm was nearly impossible to hear) to alert their neighbors. No one was hurt.

Later, a firefighter came out the front door with Ava, wet and scared, cradled in his arms.

Residents were permitted back inside for 20 minutes to gather what they could. Thurston saved some clothing, which he washed in borax and vinegar to get the smoky smell out. He also found his laptop, on a table, beneath four law books, each at least 800 pages long.

“The books were destroyed by water, but they absorbed all the water on the desk,” Thurston said. “I wiped off the laptop and it worked. It was a huge relief.”

With Ava and his computer safe, Thurston had to move his thoughts to other things.

Like the fact he had canceled his renters insurance shortly before the fire. He was graduating and moving on.

Renters insurance? For what?

“As I was watching the fire burn,” Thurston said, “I was thinking what an awful, awful mistake I had made.”

Then there was the loss of nearly everything he owned. And no place to live. And a really big test, the next day.

That’s when the dynamic duo, Thurston’s two friends, sprang into action.

“We looked into different ways we could help him and how we could help him ourselves,” Robidas said. “We got a hold of the dean. We sent out emails to all classmates who had just graduated.”

But they couldn’t take the bar for Thurston. He bought some T-shirts and jeans and groceries, checked into the Concord Comfort Inn and finished studying.

Then he took the exam.

“I could have done good, I could have done bad,” Thurston said. “I felt like I was prepared, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

Thurston found that out the hard way.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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