There was a moment on Aug. 9, 2020, the day that TV chef Rachael Ray‘s house burned down, when she discovered her home was on fire and she thought she had enough time to gather her most precious belongings. But she stopped, because she knew she was wrong.
Ray had worked with firefighters for years, as a member of the board of directors for actor Denis Leary’s The Leary Firefighter Foundation, which funds training, education, equipment and more for firefighters.
“I could hear the fire in the wall, and I knew what it was,” Ray explained to Dax Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast. “I could hear the fire spreading down all the boards behind the wall. And I knew the wall was going to blow out, and there was no time to get anything. We left in flip-flops and [with] the clothes on our back and that was that.”
Ray said that her foundation work had required her to don a firefighter suit and do drills with firefighters to help raise awareness and money.
“And we would suit up, and go into live fires, crawl on our bellies, learn how to use a hose, go into all of the situations, of course, managed by actual firefighters,” Ray said. “So [with] the training, I finally understood. I had no firefighters in my family, but for years I was fascinated by them, and I had Dennis on the show as many times as I could book him. And every time he came, privately, backstage, I would give a donation to the Firefighters Foundation.”
The actor, who played a firefighter on Rescue Me from 2004 to 2011, eventually asked Ray to become the organization’s first female board member.
“And then when the fire happened, I knew what the sound was in the wall, and I knew to turn and run and to leave immediately,” Ray said. “I didn’t have my cellphone. I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t have pictures, notes, books, nothing.”
Ray has previously explained that a man driving by on a motorcycle had stopped and alerted her that her roof was on fire. In the end, she and her husband of 16 years, John Cusimano, lost everything. (Ray thought for a few days that her pizza oven had made it, but then the last beam in the house broke. It “split it like a pumpkin.”)
The couple was able to stay busy in the moment.
“We watched until about 2:30 or 3 that morning the house burned. Neither one of us cried. We just stood there trying to problem-solve. ‘Well, now what do we do? What do we do next? How do you move forward?; And it was very proactive,” Ray said. “Then, several nights later, I woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning, and I realized I had lost all my mom’s letters.”
Ray’s mother is still living, but she has macular degeneration.
“She’s blind, largely, in the center of both eyes, and she can’t write,” Ray said. “She had beautiful script, and she wrote me such beautiful letters that meant so much to me throughout my lifetime. Decades of her thoughts and her advice, and that’s what hit me. And I woke up and I couldn’t stop. And I had her high school ring that she gave me, and that was gone.”
Work — Ray held a cooking camp for kids in the days immediately after the fire — and support from fans is what helped her get through the crisis.
“We started getting so many letters and people reaching out to us and making us things. Ceramics and blankets and quilts and stitching words of love or letters into quilts. It was just overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve never had that experience, where I read every letter and opened every thing and just to feel that amount of people being concerned about you was really. … I don’t know if cathartic is the right word. It just felt like, ‘Hey, this is going to be OK’ and to look at it in a different way.”
In September, Ray proudly showed her followers her rebuilt home, just short of one year before the fire. She writes about the idea of home in her new book, This Must Be the Place.