A Damariscotta native who lost her son and boyfriend and was badly burned in a Boothbay house fire last October draws strength from her faith and the support of friends and strangers to stay positive in the face of tragedy.
During a recent interview, Julie Gilbert talked about her roots in Lincoln County, the horrible moments in the fire and her escape out of a second-story window, her memories of her late son and boyfriend, and her ongoing recovery from her burns and other injuries.
Gilbert moved to Damariscotta in sixth grade. She attended Castner Grammar School and graduated from Lincoln Academy in 1986. She moved to Chicago in 1989 with her then-husband, a Coast Guardsman she met while he was stationed in Boothbay Harbor.
She has lived in Chicago ever since, but still has strong ties to Lincoln County. Her mother, Kay Gilbert, lives in Nobleboro, and her siblings and other relatives live in the area.
Gilbert’s boyfriend, Baldomero “Bart” Zamora, 50, and her son, Lucas Farias, 23, both of Chicago, died in the fire at 116 Pleasant Cove Road in Boothbay the morning of Sunday, Oct. 9. All three had been sleeping upstairs when the fire started.
Gilbert’s niece, Alexandra King, and King’s children, then 8 and 4, had been sleeping downstairs and sustained minor injuries. Investigators later determined that one of the children caught a couch on fire while playing with matches.
Gilbert had rented the house through the website Airbnb for a long-planned family vacation.
She had wanted to go to the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta for years. She wanted to throw Zamora a 50th birthday party – the fire was two weeks after his birthday – and celebrate her own birthday and her sister’s birthday.
After going to the Pumpkinfest parade on Saturday, the family gathered at the Boothbay house.
“My entire family was there. Everyone showed up. It was the first time all of us were together,” Gilbert said. They had a lobster bake and they played guitars and ukeleles and sang.
Later, when Gilbert’s son, Lucas, went to bed, “He kissed me and he told me he loved me and I said ‘I love you too’ and that was the last thing I said to my son,” she said.
When she woke up the next morning, the house was on fire.
“My niece came screaming up the stairs and pounded our doors open and said, ‘Everybody get out! There’s a fire! Get out! Bart, Lucas, Julie, get out!’” Gilbert said.
When she stood up, the room was full of black smoke. Her niece ran back downstairs. The three of them reached the top of the stairs to follow her, but “the stairs were engulfed in flames,” Gilbert said.
“I screamed ‘Jump out the window! There’s no way out!’” Gilbert said, but Zamora grabbed her and told her not to jump. “He said, ‘Crawl! Get on the floor! Crawl!’ And he got on top of me and we started to crawl, and the floor was on fire underneath us.
“He said, ‘The floor’s on fire!’ and I said, ‘We need to bust the window! Everybody jump out the window!’”
Zamora wrapped a blanket around her and she broke the window with her hands. When she broke the window, the fire swept in and their backs caught fire.
“I couldn’t get out the window because there was this big shard of glass, and he said, ‘We’re on fire! We’re on fire!’” Gilbert said. “He said, ‘Jump!’ and I jumped and the place exploded, the windows exploded. I landed in a brush tree still on fire.”
As her niece tried to pat the fire out, Gilbert was screaming for her son and her boyfriend, saying “They didn’t get out!” and “They’re dead!” and yelling “Are you in there? Jump!” Both were found near windows.
Gilbert estimates that 15-20 seconds passed from the moment she woke up to the moment she jumped out the window. “Twenty seconds and they died,” she said.
Gilbert was taken by ambulance to LincolnHealth’s Miles Campus in Damariscotta and then to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where she would stay for two weeks.
She sustained third-degree burns to her left hand and second-degree burns elsewhere on her body. She underwent grafting surgery to replace burn-damaged skin on her left hand and her thighs with pig skin.
Her burns are healing, although she still wears a glove on her left hand. “I have no strength or grip in it yet, but they’re hoping for pretty close to full recovery,” she said.
She is undergoing physical therapy for an ankle injury resulting from her jump, and is working to regain her strength after her time in the hospital. Her lungs are sensitive to chemicals.
But Gilbert considers herself fortunate to have only the injuries she does. “I didn’t burn where he covered me,” she said. “I’m pretty lucky.” She hopes to return to work as a flight attendant in a few months.
Gilbert has flashbacks to the fire.
“There was no way to get through the smoke and the fire,” she said. “It comes at you like a black, crawling monster. It makes noise. It’s hot, and you feel it, but your adrenaline is going so much that I believe they did not really feel the pain.”
She disputes some of the public accounts of the fire, including widespread reports, citing a person who was not at the house, that Zamora broke the window knowing he would die.
“Yes, he covered me, and he didn’t try and jump before me,” Gilbert said. “Certainly he was unselfish to his death. But he didn’t say ‘I’m going to break the window and let you out and I know I’m going to die.’”
She also questions investigators’ determinations regarding the house’s smoke detectors. Shortly after the fire, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety said there had been three functioning smoke detectors in the house.
Gilbert does not recall hearing a smoke detector upstairs, despite waking up to a room full of smoke. “Bart was a light sleeper,” she said, and would have woken up. “What I heard was from far away,” she said, in the kitchen or somewhere downstairs.
The Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman said he did not have information on the locations of the smoke detectors.
Regardless of the results of the investigation, Gilbert said she isn’t likely to rent another home through Airbnb or similar websites due to the rentals’ relative lack of regulations and safety features, like fire alarms and sprinkler systems, in comparison to hotels.
Nearly a month after the fire, Gilbert attended a joint service for Zamora and Farias at the Strong-Hancock Funeral Home in Damariscotta on Nov. 5, followed by services for each in Chicago.
“Lucas was brilliant,” Gilbert said. He attended DePaul University in Chicago on a full scholarship and completed a double major in business and economics in 3 1/2 years, graduating in June 2016. He founded a business while in college.
“There were probably 400 or 500 people at his funeral,” she said. “He had a lot of impact on people’s lives in a very short period of time.”
He “wouldn’t accept negativity from anyone” and “brought people out of darkness,” she said. “People have told me he saved their lives.”
“His life was just full force,” she said. “He told everyone he knew, ‘I’m going to die young. I’m living it now.’”
But he was also reflective in the days before the fire. Gilbert said he told her a few days prior that “’if I were to die tomorrow, I would be content.’” He also told her that, when he died, he wanted his ashes to be planted with a tree.
His sense of peace and his instructions were “a gift,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert has two younger children: Liam, 17, and Liliana, 14. Each member of the family is dealing with their loss in different ways, but supporting each other as they do so.
“We’re really closer than we ever were,” Gilbert said. “We talk about Lucas a lot.”
Gilbert’s boyfriend of three years, Zamora, was a father of two and grandfather of two. He was an independent contractor, a former employee of The Home Depot, and a veteran.
At The Home Depot, Zamora was active with a group of employee-volunteers who complete service projects, often for veterans and veterans organizations. Later, he continued to serve veterans through a nonprofit organization he founded with Gilbert, Stories of Our Fathers.
Gilbert described him as a generous, kind man who found happiness in making others happy.
“He literally died with nothing because he gave everything he had away,” she said. He dressed well, drove a nice truck, and had “the basic necessities of life,” but was otherwise unconcerned with material possessions.
He would always say, “’I can’t take anything with me,’” Gilbert said.
Gilbert takes comfort in knowing Bart and Lucas are not in pain. Then, she said, “I have to remember that I’m here. I’d rather be here than there, even though it sucks, so because I’m here, God kept me here, I need to make the best of my second opportunity in life.”
Gilbert said people often tell her she is the strongest person they know.
She credits her strength to her Christian faith, as well as support from friends and strangers.
She said she has seen how good can come of a tragedy “if you leave your mind open to it.”
The good includes her reunification with friends from Castner who were among her most frequent visitors during her recovery, bringing her clothes and encouragement.
Her old friends were also among the organizers of a benefit dinner and silent auction at the American Legion in Damariscotta after the service for Bart and Lucas.
Gilbert was astounded by the turnout and donations for the benefit. In addition to family, friends, and about 40 classmates from Lincoln Academy, there was a relative of a passenger on one of her flights, people she had met at Pumpkinfest the day before the fire, and classmates from Woolwich, where she lived before moving to Damariscotta.
Gilbert said she does not have profound enough words to thank the organizers of the benefit and everyone who attended, donated, volunteered, or otherwise supported the event.
She has lived on the proceeds of the benefit, and of an online fundraiser organized by her co-workers, since the fire.
While she focuses on the positive, Gilbert still mourns her boyfriend and son. The loss of a child “is the worst thing a parent could ever imagine,” she said.
“I cry,” she said. “I don’t ask God why. I don’t get mad. I feel like both of them lived so intently and purposefully, and I feel like they served such a purpose here, and their time was just their time. And the reason I’m alive, obviously, is something I need to figure out – maybe to be my kids’ mom still.”
Gilbert was a standout runner at Lincoln Academy. She had a competitive streak – she was the kind of athlete who would throw up in the woods during a cross-country race, return to the course, and still win the race. “I would find it in me to keep going,” she said.
One of the many people who reached out to Gilbert during her recovery was her former running coach, Kinney Stires.
“He just said, ‘Find that inner smile. It’s right here in you all the time.’ That’s what people say – ‘how do you manage to have this inner smile?’ I don’t know,” Gilbert said. “I guess it’s always been in me.”
She has a mantra now that reflects her outlook on the fire, a motto of acceptance and resilience. “I’m the same person I always was,” she said. “I’ll just never be the same.”
A heartfelt thank you
Julie Gilbert would like to send a big, heartfelt thank you to the organizers and volunteers of the fundraiser at the American Legion on Nov. 5.
Annette Bryant Farrin and Susan Warford Waltz ran the event.
The setup crew was Lisa Boucher, Mia Brinkler Farrin, Christine Gove, Karen O’Bryan, Samantha Page, Ann Pinkham, Lisa Pinkham, and Karen Prock.
Other event help was provided by George Blomquist, Lorraine Bryant, Mona Buffum, Susan Cheney, Gretchen Farrin, Cecelia Genthner, and Madison Scott.
Will and Doug (Will Avantaggio and Doug Chisholm) donated live music.