Monday morning around 3:00, I bolted awake from a deep sleep. I could hear my landlord screaming down the staircase, “Billy! Billy! Fire! Fire!”
We had a false alarm once a few years ago. Some joker on the corner pulled the handle on the firebox out there, and the fire department showed up in the middle of the night. I recall the landlord yelling down the staircase that morning, too. Me, walking up the staircase groggily, explaining that I hadn’t phoned in any fire as I was sleeping. But this was different, I could tell immediately.
I got my glasses on and bolted up the staircase. Understand that I didn’t smell any smoke in my apartment, so I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. But when I got into her place, I could immediately see, towards the back extension of her house where she has her kitchen, there was acrid smoke coming out of there. I walked towards that wall of smoke, which at this point was brownish gray and hovering about two feet off the floor. It was a wall of smoke, with that clearness noted beneath.
I walked towards the kitchen, into the smoke, and couldn’t see anything – it was 3:30 in the morning, the lights were off outside her dining room where I had entered. I couldn’t find a light switch. I waded in a few feet more, at this point in the hallway leading into the kitchen, and still couldn’t see anything, couldn’t see any sign of flames, only darkness. I started choking.
So I ran back out of the smoke towards the dining room. I had to find that fire to see if there was any chance I could put it out. I could hear it – that crackling/popping sound it makes, but could not see it, no matter how hard I tried to locate it. I walked back towards the smoke, noticing that the smoke was rapidly becoming blacker. Again, I walked into this smoke bank and saw nothing, started choking immediately. I got the impression if I stayed in there more than 20 or 30 seconds, I was probably going to lose consciousness. At this point, I gave up and ran out of the smoke. Ran back down the stairs, grabbed my cellphone and my keys, unlocked my door (which is directly below the hallway noted above) and bolted from my apartment. Wearing only shorts. It didn’t occur to me to take anything else, and I can tell you, in a situation like this, your only thought is “get out.” Not “get out with these things …” The concept of taking the time to put a shirt and shoes on, grab my wallet, etc. didn’t occur. I’d need the cellphone to call 911, possibly my keys, and that was it.
When I got into the backyard, I could see some small flames through the kitchen window – mostly shadows, not the huge flames of an inferno. We later learned the fire started with the power cord for the refrigerator, meaning most of the flames started spreading in the wall behind it, which probably explains why I wasn’t seeing anything through the smoke. The smoke was beyond belief – thick, that awful smell of burning plastic and such.
I stood there and dialed 911, got through immediately, explained what was happening, and the dispatcher let me go. I went running towards the front of the house to see the landlord on the sidewalk and a neighbor on his cellphone, too. She had also pulled down on the fire alarm on the corner, which must have worked, as a cop car then pulled up in front of the house. Two cops got out, one approached us and asked if there was anyone else in the house – and there was, the elderly lady upstairs. We hadn’t seen her. The cop encouraged me to pick up stones and try to smash her windows, yelling out her name. Nothing seemed to work – there was no sign of her, and I knew from my experience with the smoke, you weren’t going to last more than a few minutes in those kind of conditions.
The cop ran towards the back of the house where I had just been and was back there for what seemed like an eternity. But it was probably less than two minutes. He came walking out with the lady upstairs in her night clothes. We later learned the other cop had quietly and quickly taken a rope ladder and thrown it up on the other side of the house, away from the smoke, and somehow got her down that – not sure how she came out on the other side of the house, but I was glad to see her alive, as I wasn’t sure that was going to happen.
Moments later, the first fire truck arrived. (Four more would eventually, but only that first one was used.) This all occurred within five minutes of my phone call. I got the feeling in that five minutes, things had grown much worse back there. By this point, neighbors had started to congregate on the sidewalk with us, along with guys wearing badges and photo I.D. necklaces who we thought were there in some official capacity, but as it turned out were crafty independent insurance claim adjusters looking to get our business. It was mind-blowing how fast they got there – some were there before the fire department. And also how well they presented themselves as official personnel just doing their jobs.
In short, the firemen had the fire out in a few minutes – probably less than 10 minutes. In that time, paramedics had shown up and were asking the three of us who lived there if we were all right. I was fine. Rattled as hell, a little groggy from smoke, but otherwise fully functioning. My landlord and the woman upstairs actually seemed to be very in the moment also. But the paramedics thought it best that due to their age, they should be taken to the hospital for tests to make sure. (We later found both were O.K.) While this was going on, the landlord’s daughter, niece and her husband showed up, all distraught. There was probably about two dozen people in front of the neighbors house, watching what was going on.
This whole time, I’m just standing there in my shorts, clutching a cellphone. It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be all I’d be left with depending on how bad things were. A couple who lives down the block saw me like this, and the wife went back to their apartment and came back with a pair of her husband’s sandals, which fit perfectly. The Mexican building super from across the street brought me a t-shirt that also fit very well. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to get these things. Not out of any embarrassment – I wasn’t even thinking about being shirt and shoeless – just that bystanders would look at me and realize I needed some kind of help in this awful moment. I felt like I was part of some biblical parable, although something out of the Book of Job.
It was good that the landlord was taken away, because as the fire was being put out, the next thing we were aware of was smashing glass – nearly every window in the house was smashed by the firemen. I recall at the time thinking this was crazy, but then I put myself in their shoes. They’ve just walked into a strange house in pitch blackness, put out a fire, all of them carrying hoses or crow bars, and a fire being put out generates far more smoke than it does just burning. I’ve gathered fire does the serious damage, but the amount of smoke in any fire is just unbelievable. Billowing, black, choking: it needs to dissipate as much as possible.
It was also in this time that two guys from the Red Cross showed up with care packages. Wonderful guys, too, very calming, giving us water, asking what they could do. I was just wondering if I’d be able to get back into my place to see what happened, and they assured me that after the firemen left, I would. The firemen were there for about another hour. And the odd thing is, there’s no ceremony – they just leave when they’re done. By 4:45 or so, the only people left were a few neighbors, landlord’s daughter, niece and husband, me … and the ever-present crew of independent insurance claim adjusters. I’ll give them credit – they formed a group across the sidewalk and just talked and smoked among themselves. They wouldn’t leave until noon.
It was still dark, but the Red Cross guys took me downstairs. The staircase was littered with broken, charred window frames and other debris, but we could navigate our way down. I had left the door open when I ran. That's when I realized my place wasn't too damaged, at least compared to the upstairs. The rugs were soaked and there were a few puddles on the linoleum, but the fire or smoke hadn't gone down there. They let me know I could stay there if need be. (I thought I was going to do this, but it became clear after a few hours, no electricity, the possibility of still breathing in noxious fumes and carbon monoxide – I couldn’t stay there.) I can't really say what we did until sunrise -- we sort of just stood around talking to the Red Cross guys and a few neighbors. Took a brief tour through the first floor, which was a mess. Front end of the house wasn’t bad, although tons of stuff had been knocked over, but towards the back, we could see smoke damage, and the back kitchen extension looked charred.
But when sunrise came, I got back into my place, got my contact lenses on, got my sweeper and garbage can, went out front, and got to work. The landlord's daughter started crying -- I guess this really touched her, but I told her, "We got to start somewhere." There was shattered glass surrounding the whole house -- took me three hours to sweep it all up. At which time, everyone else got busy contacting relatives, talking on the phone with insurance people, etc. The independent insurance claim adjusters pretty much left us alone. I was too busy cleaning up the glass to do anything but work. Became aware how heavy glass is as I could get very little into a garbage bag before it grew cumbersome.
I sat down around 9:00 and started calling people -- Mom, work, etc. Explained that I'd probably need to get out of there for a few days at a minimum. I haven’t mentioned this before, as it’s pretty untoward, but since the water was running in my apartment, I went back in and took an enormous shit. Honestly, can’t recall the last time I cut loose like that. I literally had the shit scared out of me. And I guess it describes how awful a day this was when taking a shit is, by far, the high point.
The rest of Monday was a haze of stuff -- getting the small bit of debris out of my place (firemen did knock out a bit of ceiling by my door), the carpets, cleaning out the refrigerator, etc. Hours passed like this, the landlord's daughter, coming and going. She was wonderful -- immediately getting into it with the adjusters, knowing she'd need help dealing with the insurance people and such. She kept walking over and telling me, "I don't know what I'm doing," but I reassured her, she was doing fine. Went to see the landlord around noon – she was staying with her sister, a few blocks south, and she was doing all right, coherent, a little shocked, but all things considered, she was doing fine, drinking Greek coffee and bantering with her sister. We were both still in a mild state of shock. Eventually went back to the house, took a shower, then went into Manhattan and got the bus back to Pennsylvania.
That was Monday. Since then, I’ve kept in touch with the landlord’s daughter and learned that clean-up crew was going full-gun by Thursday. Defumigating, discarding debris and charred materials, cleaning what could be cleaned, etc. I also learned that although I thought my place had been totally unaffected, there was water damage in the ceiling – thus I’m sure they’ll have to pull down a few sections of it and re-do it. But my clothes, furniture, everything else – I was lucky that most of it was totally unaffected.
Still, I can’t go back there for at least another week or two. Will have to hash out what’s going on with work, will have to find some type of temporary housing (landlord’s daughter said they’d find some way to put me up for a few weeks if things stretched out that long). I’d love to be back in there by Labor Day, but can’t say I will with any certainty as I’m not on the scene.
As it is, I’m going slightly nuts in Pennsylvania, but at least can stay healthy, relax to some degree, go running in the morning, be around people I’ve known all my life. I’d like to write this all off with a shrug and say “no big deal.” But it’s been a huge deal, and I’ve found myself blanking out all week, getting lost in thought, just sort of fading in and out the way I did through that wall of smoke in the dark. I recall 9/11, how I felt after that, and also when Dad passed on, that hazy, floating sense of reality that inevitably follows any traumatic event. I’ve gotten much better since Monday, but people might be thinking I’m losing my mind or took a head shot. It’s hard to explain those moments – sort of like daydreaming, only without a dream. I have to say that today (Friday), I don’t think I’ve felt that way once, which is good. Now that I have some sort of clarity on the clean-up process starting, and the concept of me getting back there (post hurricane, as if we already didn’t have enough shit to deal with …), I do have a sense of relief I haven’t felt all week.
But one thing has stuck with me. That however bad that thing looked – and it looked positively awful in the cold light of day Monday morning – most of that was going to be fully repaired and reclaimed in a few weeks. To get myself back there, sweeping up the sidewalk on a Saturday, painting over graffiti, pulling pears off the landlord’s tree in front of the house … it might seem like small stuff, but I can tell you, when I can do these things again, I’m going to feel locked-in to something elemental and right in life. Something that was ripped from us Monday night and threw us into this strange floating world of waiting and slow progress.
If the fire had been allowed to burn longer, if my landlord hadn’t woken up when she did … who knows. Forget about property destruction. Easily could have died on Monday morning, a matter of minutes, but as it is now, only have this tale to tell, and an experience I don’t ever want to have again. You don’t either if you already haven’t. All I can take away is the realization that life must go on, preferably with you than without you. And you must go on with it. I’m already starting to feel older and wiser. Which sure as hell beats dead.