“Do you have a copy of …” the Red Cross worker asked.
“Oh yes, I have that … oh no I don’t; mine’s a bit charred.” I replied.
A second later, I thought to myself: “I can’t believe I am joking about this one small thing in my radically altered life.
Yes, my services handbook was toast — crisp, charred, blackened like a Cajun style catfish fresh off the grill. My family’s entire house was char-broiled, crispy, crunchy and most definitely blackened. We had a fire.
On a cool Wednesday morning, all three grandchildren got up, had breakfast and prepared for school.
KeyKey, our wonder dog, was sleeping on the floor outside my door, so the kids let him into my room, where he promptly took up a sleeping position at my feet, nestled into the blankets and extra pillows piled there. It’s a dog’s life.
They left for school, and I drifted back into sound sleep.
I awoke 25 minutes later to KeyKey’s shrill whines and frantic barking, feeling his paws tearing at my blankets, the long toenails scraping my arms. He even nipped my hair and face. Not his typical behavior.
Throwing my quilt aside, I got up to let this new manic dog out. I opened the bedroom door only to walk face first into acrid, soupy black smoke that was a third of the way down the walls. Moving as if it were wind, the smoke dropped rained pieces of ash over me. I ran the few feet to the top of the stairs and saw orange flames racing up the living room wall and arcing over the ceiling. Fingers of flames spewed burning ash everywhere. Barefoot, I ran down the first flight of eight stairs, over burning embers, kicking open the front door to get the dog out, then running down the short second set of stairs to the basement where my son-in-law was sleeping in his room, directly beneath the blaze.
As we fled the house we could hear light bulbs popping and windows breaking from the heat. The fire roared. I’d never heard fire roar.
“The house is on fire” I screamed. “Robert…Robert…the house is on fire!”
He leaped out of bed and followed me back to the door with a loud, clear “Holy shit!” as his feet hit the lawn.
“Somebody call 9-1-1”
Robert grabbed the garden hose, I raced around the house to turn the water on, and he aimed the flow through the door onto the blaze.
Across the street, our neighbor, who sits outside every day, called 9-11, as did another neighbor and several passing cars whose drivers were cell-phone equipped. I could already hear the sirens approaching our house. Firefighters took over, quickly extinguishing the blaze, which could have been much worse, and venting that black, sticky smoke which was as bad as it could be. The cause: some electrical short in the outlet wiring.
The ambulance arrived, and as the magnitude of the disaster hit me, I cried. I was choking a bit from smoke inhalation, could taste soot in my mouth and smell it in my nose. The paramedics gave me oxygen to help my breathing.
Police cordoned off our section of Airport Road, keeping traffic away from the firemen at work. The Red Cross disaster team arrived, bring things like bottled water, warm blankets to ease the chill of trauma, and immediate assistance for things like food and shelter.
Later, we walked through the wreckage. The living room, kitchen, office/den and hallways were charred and black, each room looking more like the depths of a coal mine than cozy living space. The family portraits on one wall had melted into the wall, leaving odd silhouettes against the bubbled black wall. The frame around my mother’s memorial photo burned but the picture did not; her photo was the only one that survived. Her rosary, hung at eye level from a swing arm lamp, was pulled intact from the now melted lamp.
We found the body of Rosa, our pet iguana, the only fatality. My granddaughter’s dog, Jack, was already outside. My grandson’s bearded dragon, Antonio (a lizard), was sooty but safe. My granddaughter Rochelle’s turtle, Cuzco, was safely underwater in his tank on the lower level, on the opposite side of the house. MY daughter, Kelly, was not home at the time of the fire.
Fire kills, and smoke kills even more. I could now see how people die of smoke inhalation. The fire, which began with a spark from or within a wall outlet, set the couch with its foamy cushioning on fire, then moved up the wall to burn a collection of VHS tapes in their plastic containers…the stench of this toxic plastic mush traveled in the smoke, which, to my amazement felt as hot as fire itself.
I was able to crouch low and run beneath the lowered ceiling of smoke, but without KeyKey’s craziness, his sense that something that wrong, I would have slept on, unaware, very likely succumbing to smoke before anyone even knew there was fire. Robert’s survival would have been equally questionable.
As the salvage process begins, I realize how lucky I am.
Since I moved to Tennessee, my dishes and kitchen equipment was stored in the cellar at the back of the house, along with some linens and my old books. I have a kitchen table and a rug. A dear friend was able to clean my graduation quilt, a handmade gift from a friend in Vermont. I have my outdoor bird feeders and my squirrel baffle. I have my mother’s rickety garden bridge, her garden ducks and will dig up her Bleeding Heart, transplanted here from Massachusetts. My sofa, chairs, bookcases, desk, computer, and thirty years of writing are gone, as are all my back-up disks for current projects, and all the things I purchased for the start of my MFA program last month.
I have all my IDs, health cards and such, because I was tired and lazy. I left my purse and briefcase on the floor, far from the fire, instead of putting them at my desk as I almost always do. So I have many needed documents, including my address book. I got lucky.
My daughter’s family lost everything in the kitchen, her computer and books, (we are a book-collecting family), all the living room furniture, the beds and dressers, TV, DVD, all the techie and game stuff about which I know far too little. The den, its books, its collectibles, are for the most part unrecoverable. Things like the refrigerator, the food in the cabinets, the phone numbers held by magnets are gone. Details.
One expects the larger damage from a fire. What is hard to comprehend are the little losses. Address books. A picture card. Baby pictures. A favorite book.
“I keeping reaching for something and it isn’t there,” one of my granddaughters said. “I keep thinking of things I don’t have anymore.”
Robert and Kelly can save some things from their downstairs room, but the loss column is far greater than the found. Since Robert and Kelly were in the process of a separation, Kelly was not at home, but had not yet moved most her things out. Thus, she lost much of what she had, but is not eligible for help. Technicalities. Red tape. Her loss is just as great as the rest of us; her assistance level has been the least, almost non-existent. We are helping each other through this.
My granddaughter Brandi, who should have been enjoying the start of her senior year and preparing to write her college applications for marine biology studies, held her entire life in her room. She lost it all. Soot covers the undersea mural friends and family designed and painted several years ago. Her stuffed animals, pictures of friends on her mirror, her fish lamps, collectibles and games are filthy, sooty and uncleanable. All her clothes are gone. Four washings and extra hand scrubbing saved her favorite white skirt, with the few spots remaining to be covered with some kind of appliqué. I’ll do that later, if I can save my sewing machine. If not, I’ll do that by hand.
Some of my grandson Bobby’s things are recoverable, since his room was the most distant from the fire on that floor. It takes 2-3 washings to clean clothes, with a 50% success margin on those things we even attempt to save. Most of the clothing is headed straight for the dump.
Rochelle was the luckiest; her downstairs bedroom, farthest from the fire, was spared major damage. She has her turtle tank, some of her clothes and collectibles. She is leaving behind a room of murals: a bedroom door painted with the Gryffindor shield, Dobby the house elf, the spiders marching up the wall to the window, the flying car and the Quidditch field. It will all be left behind. The irony of seeing Dumbledore’s Phoenix sitting on a branch in a ceiling high painted tree on her wall is not lost on us. We are all rising from the ashes.
We also have the magic of community, of friends, of strangers who are new friends, to help us move up from the ash to re-newed lives.
Donations to the family to help them recover are appreciated.