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A Love, a Life in Ashes After Wildfire

A Colorado widower struggles as his wife's death in huge blaze is overlooked by many.

June 09, 2003|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Ann and Gary were different. She was high-strung, he was low-key. She was outgoing, he was shy. She thought herself deeply flawed, he thought she was perfect -- and that was the one difference that made the others meaningless, the one that made their love so right.

Now there is another difference, which can't be overcome. Ann's gone and Gary's still here, sleepwalking through his days, hugging her pillow at night. And what makes it so much harder to bear is that everyone seems to have forgotten.

As Colorado marks the one-year anniversary of the worst fire in state history, there is much discussion of the 133 homes destroyed, the 138,000 acres scorched, the millions of dollars lost and thousands of lives disrupted. There is talk of the five firefighters killed when their van crashed as they raced to the fire, 40 miles southwest of Denver.

But there is little mention of 50-year-old Ann Dow, who suffocated in the smoke that engulfed her house last June 10, when the winds shifted suddenly on the fire's third day. Few link her death with the confessed arsonist who set the blaze, and that lack of public or legal recognition confounds her husband, Gary.

"There's a cause and effect," Gary says. "I don't know why people have trouble making the connection."

Terry Lynn Barton, the U.S. Forest Service worker who pleaded guilty to starting a fire on federal lands, recently began serving six years in prison. But Barton, a 39-year-old mother of two, was never charged with Ann's death, and Gary wants to know why. He wants someone to acknowledge the loss of the woman who swept him off his feet 24 years ago, he an art student at Texas Eastern University, she a secretary for the department head.

They were married June 22, 1981-- but never could limit themselves to one wedding anniversary. They celebrated the 22nd of every month, Gary says, and were eagerly looking forward to Anniversary No. 252.

Prosecutors say they weighed charging Barton with murder in Ann's death but couldn't, because no autopsy was done. A death certificate lists the cause of Ann's death as "acute asthma attack" due to "smoke inhalation," but that's not enough, says El Paso County Dist. Atty. Jeanne Smith.

"She'd had respiratory difficulties for some time," Smith says. "To prove that Terry Barton caused her death we'd have had to prove that, but for the fire, [Ann] wouldn't have died."

But Gary insists Ann's asthma was fully under control and posed no imminent health risk.

Just after prosecutors decided against filing charges, Gary got more bad news. He couldn't collect on Ann's life insurance, because she was only covered for accidental death.

It was one in a series of blows that fell after Ann's death. Without her salary, Gary couldn't afford their house 30 miles west of Colorado Springs, so he moved to a trailer south of town. Then, WorldCom, where Gary was a Web site designer, imploded, and six months ago Gary was laid off.

Now, 60 years old, unemployed, dazed with grief, Gary doesn't know what will happen next. His unemployment insurance runs out soon, and he may need to declare bankruptcy. He tries to keep going, stays busy most days by mailing off resumes, watching movies, reading Ann's favorite writer, Mark Twain. Nights are the hardest. He tosses and turns and feels as if he's freefalling in the emptiness of their bed.

On special occasions, like Ann's birthday, Gary gives himself a treat and dines at their favorite restaurant, a Mexican cafe on the north edge of town. He plans to go there Tuesday, the anniversary of Ann's death.

Eating lunch recently at the cafe, Gary looks around the room. Over the years, he says, Ann and he must have sat at every booth, always side by side, sipping tequila, holding hands. "Some people probably thought we were gross," he says softly.

"Their relationship is just really indescribable," says Lisa Hennessy, Ann's best friend. "I've never known another couple to be as close as them."

"They had that thing everybody looks for," says Gary's sister, Diana Errington. "They respected one another, they trusted one another, they were passionate for one another."

They also helped each other through trials that would have torn others apart. Ann, who had three children from two previous marriages, suffered from depression, and had endured a particularly bad bout after Sept. 11, 2001, which came days after her mother died.

Gary can still see the look on Ann's face, staring at TV images of the World Trade Center. All that fire. All that smoke.

Then, early last year, Ann's depression lifted. "I'd never seen her happier in my life," says her 31-year-old son, Robert Thompson.

There was a simple reason. Ann and Gary had finally found their dream house, at the end of a dirt road in an idyllic forest. After years in stuffy apartments, she could now stand in her pine-scented yard, listening to the birds, feeling her heart open.

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