Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In An Instant

(Warning: this post may be upsetting to readers who have had experiences with fires, or with the loss of a home in a disaster.)

I watched a house burn down today.

My daughter and I were headed to a local playground about a mile and a half from our house when we heard the sirens.  Fascinated by emergency vehicles, she asked what they were.  I speculated on where they were going, said they were going to put out a fire somewhere, help someone who needed help, and kept walking, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and the slight breeze that finally smelled like spring.

Until I realized we were walking directly towards a pillar of thick, brown, billowing smoke.

I don't understand the human fascination with disaster, but I know that it has sway over me, too.  "Oh," I said, "that's where the fire trucks are going.  Do you want to see them working?"

My daughter bounced in her stroller.  Yes, yes, she said, excited.

And so was I, sort of, until I saw the house.

I'd run by here countless times, looked at the jogging stroller on the porch.  Small children lived in this house.  The flames engulfed one entire side of the facade, roared between the roof and the chimneys, taunted the firefighters from under the roof.  There seemed to be no stopping the burning.  I watched in horror, unable to swallow, hoping that they had gotten the kids out. 

A female firefighter walked by with a sooty-faced infant on her hip.  The baby couldn't have been more than a year old, if that.  She regarded the open-mouthed crowds silently, seemingly content with her current place of safety.

In Spanish, I asked some of the women next to me, who were talking rapidly into their cell phones, if they knew the people who lived there.  Yes, they said.  The pregnant lady, over there.  She lives here.  With her son.  And the baby.

The mother had gone into labor.  As the ambulance pulled away, I felt sick, knowing that it had been too soon for that pregnancy to end, wishing desperately that I could do something, feeling awful about witnessing this disaster, and yet not knowing how to pull myself away.

I asked two other women, standing next to their store across the street from the blaze, if they knew anything.  They told me that they'd heard a bang, that they came out and the entire lower floor was on fire.  That the mother said she had been putting her baby down for a nap, and that she'd left the four year old downstairs.  That they'd found her standing right outside the house in shock, watching everything they owned burn.  That the mother had asked the little boy if he'd done anything, that he'd denied again and again, and finally, tearfully, confessed to playing with a lighter.  "Mommy," he'd asked, "am I going to jail?"

Oh, god, I thought.  The four year old.  A little four year old kid, responsible for a horrible mistake, a mistake that led to the burning of the rental where his family lived.  What would the landlord do to these people, who had already lost everything?

I asked N. if she had seen enough of the firefighters working, and she shook her head.  But I couldn't stand still any longer.  I started to ask people if they knew how we could help the family.  Could we get them clothes.  Food.  Things for the baby.  Anything.  God, anything.  And it would never be enough.

The smoke continued to billow into the air, and as the firefighters sprayed the house from the inside and the outside, the roof began to cave in.  Pieces of it were flying off from the sheer force of the water stream.  I could see through the walls now.

No one knew the family, no one knew how to reach them.  No one knew who was in charge.  People suggested I contact United Way, or the Red Cross, but didn't know if the family would be in touch with those agencies.  It was clearly too chaotic, with the fire still burning out of control, for us to make any logical plans.  But it was hard for me to walk away, feeling like I'd witnessed disaster and done nothing about it.

When I was growing up, my biggest, deepest, darkest fear was not nuclear war, or even the dark.  My greatest fear was that our house would burn down.  I woke up screaming in the night, flames licking the corners of my imagination, smoke choking me in my sleep.  I saw the stairs burning, the curtains, taking away my escape routes, leaving me stranded.  I saw everything we owned, everything that brought me comfort, turn to ashes.

Now, thirty years later, I watched the nightmare come to life before my eyes, and I felt powerless to stop it.  I could only imagine the nightmares of those children.  My heart hurt so much it was hard to breathe.

It's astounding how much your whole life can change in an instant.

Finally, N. pulled me away, ever the pragmatist, telling me she'd seen enough of the firefighters at work.  We walked the rest of the way to the playground, where I felt like we were living in some strange parallel universe, Muzak drifting from the outdoor mall nearby while children squealed with laughter, climbing and sliding and running around.  Shoppers walked by laden with bags of clothes from the outlets, completely oblivious to the devastation happening not even two blocks away.

It shook me, the parallel universe, perhaps even more so than the fire.  "Don't you know?" I wanted to scream.  "Don't you all know what just happened?  That two little children and their mother have no place to live?  That she may be giving birth to a baby that might not live?"

But of course, they didn't.  And it was only by coincidence that I did.

What was your deepest, darkest fear as a child?  Have you ever seen a house burn down?  What do you do to help people when you feel completely powerless?

*A group of people in my town have been trying to track down the family and offer support.  This story is not over yet.  At least, I hope it's not.
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  1. Oh hon, you sum it up perfectly; that feeling of there being two alternate worlds. But isn't it that way with everyone you walk past? That we have no idea what they've witnessed, how they're processing the world.

    My heart goes out to that family.

  2. Thank God they were unhurt. (I hope upon hope I can include the new baby in that.) But how terrible.

    I feared our house burning down too. I think it's a common thing - when I finally mentioned it to my parents, years later, they said they too had worried about that as children. I wished I'd known - somehow I felt that if I'd known everyone worries about it, I'd have understood it wasn't very likely to happen.

    But terrifying, scarring, horrific - even before you get to the day-to-day practicalities of having lost all your belongings and your home. I hope you can find a way to help the family. I know with you on their side they won't be alone.

  3. The house burning down remains one of my husband's deep fears. I think it's very common. It was never one of my big fears even though friends of ours lost a lot of possessions (though not the whole house) in a fire started when one of the kids was playing with a lighter.

    Let me know if there's a neighborhood collection for the family. I'll send something your way.

  4. Our apartment house was set on fire by a drug addict when I was 10 years old. He was at a party in a nearby house and wanted to see something burn. It was 2 o'clock in the morning, and the only reason why we aren't all dead is that a shift worker coming home heard a loud 'bang' and went to investigate. We lost pretty much everything, including the entirety of my mother's paycheck because it was Friday night, and no way to get it back. My greatest fear as a child was something happening to my mother because we didn't know where we'd end up if something did. Things can always be replaced, people can't.

  5. Oh my God that is awful. I don't think I could sleep for a week after seeing that.

    My deepest fear as child: 1) scary things in the dark and 2) Fire

    Fire is still a significant fear so I may regret reading your post if I have trouble sleeping tonight, but I'm really tired so hopefully not!

    My parents were in 2 fires before they had kids, including one where their whole apartment burned down. They told those stories OVER AND OVER when I was growing up, so while I never had desire to play with matches, they might be at least partly responsible for my pyrophobia.

    The one thing I wonder is how could playing with a lighter cause a fire that spreads so quickly? One would think there's some fumes involved, but is there even enough fuel in there to cause that many fumes?

  6. I don't remember it myself, but my mother found me playing with matches when I was a toddler -- I burned my fingers. I was terrified of fire & matches for years after that. I was probably a teenager before I lit another match. That poor little boy, imagine having to live with that for the rest of your life....

  7. Oh, what a powerful post. I am so sorry. Truly crying over here.

    There was a house in my neighborhood that burned down a few years ago; I wasn't home when it happened but saw the aftermath. Not sure what happened to the family...eventually the house was torn down and a new house was built (amazing, given that I live in a historic district)...we know the family who lives there now. I walk past sometimes and think about what you can't see...the stories that piece of land holds.

  8. What a tragic story and an awful thing to witness. I will be thinking about the family and hoping that you and your friends are able to provide them some support. It sounds like they will really need it.

    In response to another reader's question - a fire spreads SO quickly! It doesn't matter how small it is when it begins (small lighter flame that is touched to something), as long as it has something to burn it doubles in size every 30-60 seconds, which means it grows exponentially. It can consume an entire room in a matter of minutes. Children often get scared and "leave the scene" when they accidentally set a fire, which gives the fire that much more time to spread before someone realizes it. It is scary!

  9. There is almost nothing that grips me more than a house fire. There is a violence to fires - even the ones started by accident. It's a violent, angry ending to a house, a life, our belongings. I can't imagine the sense of loss and I totally understand that parallel universe feeling of going about your day around whole, happy kids and adults who had no idea of that loss so close to them. I pray for that family. So sad.

  10. Oh, how horrible for all involved :-(

    The feeling of helplessness is almost has hard to shake off as the image of the fire.

    My deepest fear as a child was the same as yours. When I was 5 or 6, one of the discount stores we shopped at burned down. I was unable to sleep well for awhile, and when there was a fire drill in school shortly thereafter, I missed the "drill" part and though the school was on fire. Paralyzingly scary.

    Hugs to you.

  11. Last year, there were 3 pretty major fires within walking distance of my house. I live in a historic district, so they were all old structures. In one case, a little boy who lived in one of the houses was playing at my neighbor's house. My kids were out too, and I helped my neighbor figure out if it was his house (without freaking him out). It was tough. I wanted to help too. In all cases, it was the local Red Cross that came out to help all those displaced. They also released a list of items needs (children's clothes and sizes, etc.) so the community could help. I totally understand what you are feeling.

  12. Fires are awful. My husband used to work for the Red Cross and was part of the fire response team, which meant he got called whenever there was a house fire and he provided the family with a place to stay, clothes, food vouchers, etc. So your local Red Cross should already be alert to this (firefighters contact them) so I'm sure you could contact them and help that way because what they can provide isn't much for very long...
    So sad.

  13. I have never witnessed a house fire, but I've known people who've survived them. I can't imagine watching it, especially if you don't know who lives there. If you know, you know who to look for and ask about. How many to count. If you don't..the helplessness of that situation is unimaginable.

    When I was a kid my secret nightmare was that someone was going to take me. Where to, i have no idea, but I was afraid enough to have panic attacks when I got to street corners by myself. And I often piled stuffed animals on top myself and practiced breathing shallowly through my pillow. My parents never noticed.


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