(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.