This week has felt like one long day. The only reason I know that at least two nights have passed since Monday, is that I distinctly remember sleeping in two different beds. My brain now keeps time in BF and AF (before fire and after fire). My life’s course took a sharp turn at a rapid speed this past Monday when a fire broke out in my apartment building.
At 6:30, my husband and I were just having a normal weekday evening. Our computers were open, the television was on, and the cats were where they wanted to be. All of a sudden, we heard screaming. I assumed someone was having a heated argument in our hallway. It wouldn’t have been completely out of the ordinary. But then suddenly I heard what was being screamed, “Fire! Get out!” I wasn’t at all alarmed, I just assumed it was an over reaction and calmly walked to the door of my apartment to see what things looked like. A woman told me to get out now—there’s a fire. I looked up and saw a small amount of smoke coming down from the floor directly above. After years of fire drills in college, I assumed the least serious scenario: someone had burnt popcorn or toast or something.
My husband, however, saw something completely different. He ran to the windows and looked out. In the reflection of the windows of the building across the street, he could see flames spilling out of an apartment on the floor above us. Our building has only six floors, we live on the fifth. Understanding the severity of the situation, my husband (FF) rushed to get shoes and a coat on so we could leave. I, not having seen the flame with my own eyes, and still in “this can’t be that serious mode,” changed into jeans out of my pajamas.
The odd thing is that part of my brain knew this was serious, but part of my brain was convinced that it was a minor event and we’d be back in our apartment once the firemen came and checked things out. I thought to myself, “This is like that time in college when someone left a hairbrush on their radiator. There is a lot of smoke, but no fire. As soon as the firemen get here, they’ll check it out and let us back in.” So my “not serious” or NS brain figured, given the temp outside, let me get dressed for standing outside for an hour. But then there was the “VS” or “very serious” part of my brain that comprehended I might loose everything I left behind. That is the part of my brain that made me move quickly. That is the part of my brain that told me to put on my wedding band and engagement ring. That is the part of my brain that told me to get the cats out with us (even though we’re not supposed to have pets in our building, and I’d be showing my hand).
Unfortunately, we couldn’t wrangle the cats. We only had one carrier at the time, and neither of them liked going into it. I got Carrie in, but in trying to get Mr. Big to go in after her, they both got loose. With FF screaming at me that we had to get out and NOW, I started to become panic-rushed. That is to say, my VS and NS brains were still telling me different things, but my body was now shaking a bit, and I wasn’t able to do anything gracefully. With sadness in my heart, I left the carrier empty on the floor and went to get my coat, my cell phone, and my house keys. Then I turned off the power-strips attached to our TV and laptops (VS brain was telling me if firemen pumped water through out apartment, it’d be best to not have too much electricity on tap). I turned off the lights and locked the door. NS brain let me forget to take my wallet or car keys.
Soon FF and I were standing on the street corner across the street from our apartment watching as bright orange flames raged out of the apartment one floor up and one unit over from us. Even then, my NS and VS brains were at odds. I now understood that this wasn’t overcooked popcorn, but I also thought that since the apartment on fire wasn’t directly above ours, but one unit over, our apartment would be fine as long as the fire stayed where it was. And why wouldn’t it stay where it was? Weren’t firefighters—even now—on their way? Yes, they were on their way, but the snowstorm of the previous day meant they had to stop to dig out and tow cars blocking their route, frozen hydrants on our block meant they had to link hoses to hydrants three or four blocks away, and the winds were in the fifties.
Now that I saw a real fire was underway, I kicked myself for not trying harder to get the cats out, and for leaving behind everything save the coat on my back, for not putting on better shoes, for not taking any form of identification, and for leaving behind my only set of car keys. Thanks a lot NS brain.
Within just a few minutes, the firemen arrived, but no matter how hard they worked, just as it seemed the flames were coming under control, another burst of fire would erupt and rage again. It sounded like a thousand furnaces all going at once. After a while we could see that the fire had spread to the apartment directly above ours and that a large section of the building’s roof was on fire. The firemen used our apartment to get in (as it is attached to the closest fire escape). After about three hours of standing, shivering and watching, my VS brain told me hypothermia was imminent, and I should get inside. FF had already headed towards a friend’s house since he was wearing so little. But I had stayed back to look on, because my NS brain was telling me that soon and very soon the fire would be out, and the firemen would let us back in the building. And I wanted to be around for that. I walked to a nearby laundromat and tried to regain the feeling in my fingers and toes.
This is when VS brain started doing the majority of the work. VS brain was doing the math. This fire had been going for upwards of three hours and was now a classified as a five alarm blaze. It wasn’t worth it to stand around waiting. There would be no home to return to tonight. I started walking the mile and a half to my brother-in-law’s home (where my husband was waiting for me). Friends (with FF in tow) picked me up before I had walked even a quarter of a mile. They had dug out their car to pick FF up, and even though I was willing to walk (not wanting to make them come out again), they insisted on getting me. And I was grateful…my feet were cold and wet, my fingers refused to warm up, and as much as I love walking, a mile and a half never seemed so long as during those first tearful steps.
So how did this all come about? Turns out someone had left a space-heater too close to their bed. Their sheets caught fire, the mattress followed suit, and then the flames took over from there.
And that’s how the second-hardest week of my life started.