Soot clung to my plastic bags.

4 or 5 hours ago an apartment in my building caught fire. It was on the second floor, on the northwestern corner of the building. I’m not certain, but I think it started in the bedroom of that unit because that’s where most of the flames were jetting out. At this moment, I still have no idea what caused it but, my first suspicion is that somebody was smoking in bed. Or maybe it was a candle. I don’t know.

Anyway, my apartment is on the fourth floor towards the middle of the building and was essentially untouched.

The first I was aware of that something was wrong was when I started awake with someone screaming in the street, “Hello? Wake up! Fire! Wake up! Get up! Everyone wake up! There’s a fire! Fire! There’s a fire here! Wake Up! Hey! Fire!” I wasn’t entirely clear as to what they were saying so that quotation should not be considered verbatim. I was shaking off sleep. My first thought, before my head was entirely clear, was that it was some angry, crazy homeless guy shouting something ridiculous in the street. They’ve done that before.

Then there was a loud pounding on the door of my apartment and the sound of running feet and more pounding on other doors. Then finally the fire alarmed was pulled. Sense came to me–Oh. My building is on fire! I stumbled out of bed to get on my pants, sandles and jacket. I did my standard pocket check–good, keys. I went out into the hall. The fire doors at both ends of the hall did a good job of keeping the smoke out so everything looked clear.

We’ve done fire drills in my building before. I knew, nonverbally, by pure motor memory, what to do. Go to the nearest fire door with the fewest flights of stairs to the street or alley. This I did.

Opening the fire door was a shock. It was solid black smoke on the other side. Visibility was zero. I could not breathe at all. Actually I really wasn’t thinking verbally about this at all.

I just knew and acted–I shut my eyes, breathed out, clapped my hand over my nose and mouth, felt for and grabbed the hand rail and kept going down the stairs to get out into the alley. I was outside before I really knew what was going on or what I was really doing.

Outside there were my neighbors. I dazedly glanced around and then went to one side and the other of the building to see what was going on. I saw the flames.

That’s when I started to think coherently. People were using their mobile phones to dail 911. Someone was asking repeatedly, “When is the fire department going to get here?” Then we heard the roar of the trucks even before we heard the sirens. Luckily, it was still early morning so I guess there wasn’t a lot of traffic to fight.

The firefighters were fast. Seconds after their arrival, they had two or three enormous jets of water shooting through through the bedroom window and suited fighters rushing in the building and bashing in doors. The flames went out under this deluge in only a few seconds. I could see their headlamps shaking around in the smoke as they knocked out windows. They ripped out fittings inside the apartment and threw these out the windows. There were others that went to adjacent apartments on the second floor, opening or bashing in doors and opening or smashing windows.

Firefighters know that property simply doesn’t count. If it’s in the way, destroy it and move on to the next task.

Smoke was everywhere but it looked to me, even though I had forgot to put my glasses on, they had it out pretty quick. Then again, my time sense was all screwed up. That always seems to happen in situations like this, doesn’t it?

While they were putting it out, I realized that I left my cat, Lola, inside the building. I’m embarrassed and disgusted with myself that I didn’t even think about Lola, my cat, until I already outside. But I wasn’t going back after her until the fighters gave us clearance. I knew that people died that way, by going back into all the smoke.

The smoke was mostly confined to the second floor of the building and the stairwells. A firefighter came out to the alley, wearing his breathing mask, sounding just like Darth Vader. This he removed to ask us questions and tell us the situation. I mentioned that I left my cat in there and two or three of my neighbors on the fourth floor said the same.

The firefighter asked us which floor we were on and asked us to follow him. The smoke in the stairwells was mostly cleared out at this point and he felt it was safe for us to go to the fourth floor to get our cats if we didn’t linger and stuck with him. This was all before 6:45AM.

I know that because my clock radio hadn’t gone off. (But maybe I simply didn’t notice it.)

The other odd thing is that my smoke detector hadn’t gone off either. I had put in a new battery into it a few months ago and tested it. You’re supposed to check these things every month but, at least I was reliable enough to check it at all. I did make the effort to check my smoke detector on a fairly regular basis.

Regardless it didn’t go off.

It was a pretty old detector. It’s possible that despite having a new battery in it, the sample of americium within it, assuming it was that type of detector, had decayed to uselessness.

Or maybe there wasn’t enough smoke on my floor to trigger it. I slept with my window open that night but I don’t really know if that kept smoke away from the detector or had blown any towards it.

Lola was hiding under my bed. She knew something was up. I grabbed her and dashed down and outside.

I carried her around in my arms while I circled the building. I borrowed someone’s mobile phone and called work to let them know that I wouldn’t be in today becuase my building had a fire. Another hour or so passed as we all milled about in the streets. Not really being a talkative sort, I didn’t ask my neighbors any questions but I was willing to answer theirs and chat with them. I didn’t really know anything. I just knew my day was going to be all messed up.

The aid cars and trucks started clearing away. Firefighters were still throwing trashed fittings into the parking lot below. There was a big, black stain all the way up the northwestern corner of the building. The bedroom windows of the apartment directly above the gutted apartment were also smashed. Water surged into storm drains in the street in front of my building.

The same firefighter that let us in to get our cats was a cat man himself. He spotted me later in front of the building and told me it was okay for me to return to my apartment but the second floor was off limits. I went up the front stairwell.

These stairs were drenched and sooty until I got past the second floor. The fire door on the second was open and the hallway was black. The lights were out and the walls were covered with soot.

But my floor and the third seemed totally untouched.

I entered my apartment for the second time. My clock radio had been playing for about an hour. It was around 7:45AM. I dropped Lola down and she was greatly relieved to back in familiar ground again.

I was at a loss as to what to do. In theory I could have just showered and gone to work late. But actually, I had already worked many hours of overtime this last month. It was Friday. I sat down to write this instead. It was about 8AM when I did this.

As I write this I hear my building super and his boss having a loud, tense discussion in the street about reports to the city fire marshal, insurance costs, clean up and other forms of damage control.

I noticed a subtle dusting of soot on the plastic bags I had in my recycle bin. Odd that my smoke detector didn’t go off. I checked it again. It chirped loudly just as it should. Odd.

Minor spelling and grammar corrections, link added, timestamp corrected.

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5 Responses to Soot clung to my plastic bags.

  1. Jon Regimbal says:

    Hi Pace,
    I’m glad you and your cat are OK. It sounds like a scary event. By the way, why did you go into a stairwell filled with black smoke instead of trying to find a clear one? You could have been badly injured or killed from smoke inhalation. Ninny.
    Best regards,

  2. Toby says:

    Whew- glad you are ok droogie…not so odd that your alarm didnt go off I think; as you said, the fire door was doing its job; those things are designed to recognize immediate smoke activity; hypersensitive fire alarms end up quickly getting smashed or their batteries removed.
    Don’t worry about Lola- if the fire had gotten out of hand she would have used her cosmic powers and shot beams of antifire out of those golden orbs of hers
    I stay in so many different hotels etc. around the world and never really trust their safety so I always look to see how I could get out in an emergency-
    Firemen rock– they have always been my favorite civil servants; after 9/11 everyone was talkinmg about what heroes the cops are- well actually only a few cops died in the twin towers- it was mostly firemen. Firemen around the world hurl themselves into walls of flame to save innocent lives- they are just wayyy cool. I love them.
    you have earned 250 EP juyayay

  3. Pace Arko says:

    Ah! Good Question!

    1. I wasn’t thinking at all. I just acted. I just went to the nearest exit with the shortest route outside, the back alley stairwell.
    2. It later turned out that the other stairwell was filled with smoke too. and that would have required me to walk through four smokey flights* of stairs as opposed to two. But again, I didn’t know that, I wasn’t thinking.

    In hindsight, I suppose I should have checked both firedoors to see if one was clear. But, to borrow trouble, let’s imagine that the fire was raging out of control and I wasted time checking both doors only to find that both paths were equally bad and then not being able to act on this information and being burned to a crisp because I spent too much time checking my alternatives.
    But silly hypotheticals prove nothing. The point was I wasn’t thinking at all. I was just acting. Oh well.
    * Actually now that I think about it, maybe it would have only been three smokey flights of stairs since smoke generally rises and the fire was on the second floor. Maybe the last flight would have been clear.
    But then again the front stairwell was right next to the fire, which if it were raging out of control, would have blocked my exit for sure. But I didn’t know any of this. The fire could have just as easily have been next to the stairwell I did choose.
    Believe me if I thought this all out, and I’m the type of person who constantly freezes up when confronted with alternatives under pressure, I probably would have still been standing in the hallway trying to decide as seconds ticked away.
    Hindsight is always twenty-twenty.

  4. Tim Q. says:

    Pace, I’m glad to hear this was not due to one of your machines overheating. Most importantly, I am glad that you and your cat are okay. I suppose that archive of MS printer coversheets from over ten years ago is still intact.
    PS. Does Lola have some sort of anti-fire ballistic jubblies? This I must see….

  5. Wow Pace,
    I am glad you and everyone else in your building is okay. I’m glad you took the day off work. Some days are meant to reflect upon life.

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