Saturday, February 05, 2011

In Case Of Fire

We’ve all asked ourselves that question: the house is on fire, you have one minute, what would you grab? I think we all have similar answers: photos, computers, pets, heirlooms… In my mind I had it plotted out too. Grab the laptops, the cats, my jewelry box, as many photo albums as I can carry and go.

We heard the screaming around 8:30 one night after dinner. It was my next-door neighbor who is generally silent. There was something to her voice that made me prick up my ears – an edge of panic. We muted the TV and that’s when the fire alarms went off. Not just a little beeping smoke detector but whole building siren.

“I smell smoke,” my husband said as he yanked open our door.

Our next-door neighbor had been screaming for her dog who she couldn’t find for all the smoke in her condo. “It’s the unit below me,” she blurted having finally gotten her dog. “Not again!”

“We can stop it!” shouted the guy across the hall matching her panic. There had been a fire in this building shortly before we moved in. It had destroyed several units and its terror was still fresh in our neighbors’ memories.

My husband and I looked at each other. Was this the real deal? Are we evacuating or just going down to handle the situation?

The guy across the hall slammed his elbow into the emergency glass over the hallway fire extinguisher. “Come on!” he shouted to my husband who grabbed our fire extinguisher and followed. I ran back into our kitchen for another. I put on shoes and a sweater, grabbed my phone and keys and followed after the guys. I was sure we’d be right back up after we’d put the fire out.

I reached the first floor and found the hallway thick with smoke. My husband and the guy across the hall pounded the door. “Is anyone in there?” shouted the guy. My next-door neighbor informed us that a woman and her dog lived there. We had no idea if they were home. The guys made a few kicks at the door. My husband realized that his flip flops were a poor choice. As the smoke thickened it was clear: this was a fire out of our league. We joined the flow of neighbors trooping outside.

Neighbors who’d never met stood together on the sidewalk watching the smoke billow the curtains of the imperiled unit. The president of our HOA finished her 911 call. And we waited. It was still just that one unit. Surely we’d be back in soon. Surely we didn’t need to really panic and go back in for the cats, laptops and jewelry. Surely.

“In the last fire,” the president mused, “we evacuated and were barred entry for two weeks while they made sure the structure was sound.”

Two weeks? Neither of us had wallets, my husband didn’t have his phone or decent shoes. How would we pay for a hotel or food? How would our cats survive for that long? Our next-door neighbor took that as her cue to walk to the hotel around the corner and settle in before we all had to head there. We still didn’t know if anyone was inside the unit and where were the fire trucks? We lived less than a mile from the fire house.

The guy from across the hall couldn’t stand it anymore, “we’ve got to get in there, come on!” He and my husband took their extinguishers and ran back in. They’re not foolishly running into a burning building, I told myself, just a perfectly fine building with one small fire in progress. I stood rooted to the spot.

The fire trucks came. To our revved brains it seemed that they puttered around, slowly assessing the situation and getting the hoses out. My husband and the guy emerged. The guy’s elbow streamed blood from where he’d broken the emergency glass. The firemen yelled at them and barred entry for anyone else. The guys, however, had somehow managed to kick the door in and empty both extinguishers into the fire.

“It didn’t seem to do any good,” my husband murmured. “All we could see was flames. They’re in the kitchen right by the door. We couldn’t tell if anyone was still in there but I doubt it.” I hoped he was right.

Our next-door neighbor returned from her hotel to check on the situation. “Why aren’t the hoses flowing yet?” she wailed. “My place is next!” And ours right behind, I thought.

The firemen set up yellow caution tape and we had to move down the sidewalk. The hoses finally started flowing as the unit’s resident came home. She was a wide-eyed girl in her mid twenties that I’d never seen before. She was horror-struck. She’d just left not half an hour before to run an errand.

“Stove was on,” a bustling fireman barked as he passed.

“I never cook! I didn’t turn it on!” the girl wailed. Confused and now in tears. “My puppy is in there!”

The girl sat down and I watched her. What was that like: to have your life going one way one minute and come home to chaos the next? I wanted to talk to her, comfort her, but had no idea what to say.

A short time later, a firewoman emerged from the building with a wrapped bundle. Thank God they found the dog, I thought. I wanted to see this reunion. The firewoman started to approach the girl but, seeing her in conversation with a policeman she stopped. My heart dropped into my stomach. It was dead. It had to be dead or she wouldn’t have delayed. The policeman wandered off and the firewoman went to the girl. I couldn’t tear myself away. I had wanted to see the joyous reunion, the relief at getting a treasured friend back. I wanted to see the utter despair, the pain even more. Not in a macabre way, not that I at all wished for her suffering. I just wanted to see the humanness of it. To see from the outside what I had so recently felt myself.

The firewoman presented the bundle and the girl shook her head and cried with renewed despair. She rocked the bundle back and forth and wailed into the night. I waited until the first shock had time to sink in and I went to her. I sat next to her and rubbed her back. I told her I was so sorry, that I had lost my dog too a few months back and knew just what she was feeling.

“You do? She was just a puppy. I only got her two weeks ago,” the girl sniffed. “It was my birthday yesterday.”

‘I’m so sorry’ seemed like an inadequate phrase so I just sat with her and rubbed her back with each crying jag.

After a while the fire was out. Thankfully the building was pronounced sound with only the girl’s unit a charred ruin. My husband said he was going in to check on our place and the cats.

“I’m staying with her”

A dog-loving neighbor joined us and called animal control to dispose of the puppy body.

“The fire marshall can walk you through now,” a policeman informed her. “It’ll be your only chance to see about any valuables or stuff before we cordon off the unit.”

“What do I do with her?” the girl gestured to her inert bundle.

“Just put it down, no one will touch it. It will be fine here”

“I’m not just leaving her on the sidewalk!” the girl spat. She brandished the dead dog at the cop like a threat, like a debt he owed her. “Will you hold her?”

“I gotta file a report,” the cop muttered and turned to use his cruiser’s roof as a desk. The girl stared in wide-eyed pain. “The fire marshall’s waiting for you.”

“I’ll hold her,” I held my hands up to the girl.


“I’d be honored” She delicately placed the wrapped bundle in my hands and I held the dead dog in my lap. Her grey head lolled out of the wrap. I briefly wondered how the firewoman had found such a clean white cloth for the dog and I petted the soft head, tucking it better into the bundle.

The crowd dispersed, filtering back into the building and to evenings interrupted. I sat alone in the chill January air with a dead dog on my lap. I told her she’d be missed, that we were all so sorry, that we tried to get to her. I asked her to say hi to my Simon. And then I started crying for the first time in the whole incident.

After a while animal control showed up. I asked the dog-loving neighbor who’d come out to check on me to get the girl. I couldn’t just hand the dead puppy over without her having her goodbye. The girl came stumbling out, numbly dragging a small carry-on behind her. I gave her the puppy and she petted her ears and head, told her how much she loved her and how sorry she was for her short life.

She looked at the mercifully patient animal control officer. “I can’t,” she squeaked. The dog-loving neighbor stepped in and handed the bundle over to the officer while I hugged the sobbing girl.

Her parents arrived to pick her up. I wanted to give her my number in case she needed anything. I watched dumbly as she walked away. I drifted back inside and found my husband on the couch comforting our freaked out cats. We looked at each other confused, relieved, guilty. We had just abandoned everything we said we’d grab in case of fire. We’d left with no money or supplies for survival. We felt we’d failed our fire test.

We heard later that despite their initial scolding from the firemen, my husband and the guy’s actions with their extinguishers probably helped stop the fire from spreading more. I never saw the girl again. Our building smells like smoke and the ground floor is missing its carpet but otherwise it’s as though nothing ever happened.

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