Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Five-Alarm Life: Residual Damage

 by Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Corduroy, the teddy bear Aabye had since birth, survived the fire.
 The days immediately following the fire were full of challenges. First we had to answer the questions of our most basic needs: Where would we live? What would we wear? How would we eat? Thankfully, with the help of the Red Cross and our community of family and friends, we found our answers.

Those first few nights after the fire, we could have stayed at the Red Cross shelter, but instead we stayed in my brother-in-law’s small basement apartment. We had friends living upstairs, and they included us in their meals. (We ate extremely well those first few post-fire nights.) Staying with friends and family so nearby was extremely comforting. They helped us with practical things like lending us socks, shirts and sweaters. They also gave us the moral support we needed.

We might have stayed in this first temporary home longer, but one of the landlords complained about us being there, so we scrambled to find another place to stay after just two nights. Where would we go now?

The challenge in finding a place to stay was that we had no idea how long we’d be displaced from our apartment. We were given the option of breaking our lease, but we decided to wait for the reconstruction. We had our reasons for waiting: Our rent was affordable, and we loved our spacious apartment, helpful superintendent and vibrant neighborhood. Finding all of those things within our price range hadn’t been easy, and we didn’t want to give any of them up.

Two friends came to our rescue. They were living in a three-bedroom apartment in Union Square, and offered us the third bedroom for a month (rent free!). They would have let us stay there longer, but they are frequent generous hosts, using the bedroom to house out-of-town guests on a regular basis. I’d always wanted to live in Manhattan. And having a month to live with friends (rent free!) while we searched for long-term temporary housing lifted a great weight of worry off of our shoulders.We accepted their generous offer happily.

Then came the hard part: A day or two later, it was time to assess the damage to our home. As we approached our building for the first time since the fire, we had no idea what to expect. From the street we could see that the roof over our portion of the building was riddled with holes or completely missing. The lobby was a lagoon; water dripped from the ceiling and ran down the walls. The air was heavy with smoke, and everything was tinted gray or black. There was no heat and there was no electricity.

We cautiously walked the five flights of stairs to our apartment, and our super let us in. My husband and I stood in the threshold, awestruck. It was a sad scene to behold. The apartment that had been full of warmth and twinkling Christmas lights just a few days earlier was now cold and dark. All the windows were either open or missing; and they were our only source of light. We started to make our way around the apartment—trying (in vain) to avoid getting dripped on by the water still coming through our ceiling.

Fortunately, the fire had not reached our apartment, but the water damage was extensive—bad enough that everything would have to be completely gutted and rebuilt. Fire hoses had been trained on our apartment (and those above it) for hours during the blaze—thousands upon thousands of gallons of water at high pressure had drenched everything. Firefighters had needed to break through parts of our walls and ceilings. Everywhere we looked there were holes.

It was so disheartening to see what our home had become. Just days before we’d been lounging on our coach, but now that couch was soaked, moldy and covered in rubble. Our laptops sat in a puddle on the coffee table. Unopened Christmas presents lay soggy under the tree. But we still knew we were lucky. We would be able to save things like pots, pans, silverware and dishes—anything that could get wet (really, really wet). But our neighbors in apartments where the fire had raged wouldn’t be able to salvage anything.

We packed up our soggy, sooty clothes and began a massive dry-cleaning and laundry campaign. (In about two weeks we were wearing our own clothes again.) Everything I touched was heavy, laden with icy cold water, and my fingers grew raw. The smaller things that we could carry, and expected to need in the short term, we took with us (like metropolitan nomads) every time we moved. Friends and family members offered up their basements and closet space to some our stuff. But the bulk of it we left to the professionals. We hired a company that could come the very next day, pack everything up, and take it away to be stored. So while our hearts remained here in New York, most of our stuff ended up in Newark.

In the end we were rather fortunate, we primarily lost stuff that's relatively easy (literally and emotionally) to replace: furniture, appliances, shoes, clothing and accessories, fridge and pantry items, and books. We lost a lot, but most of the sentimental things I would have been broken-hearted to loose, survived: Corduroy (the teddy bear I’ve had since birth); the toy chest my parents bought and painted for me when I was three; the wood-mounted photo of my parents on their wedding day; photos that were taken before the digital age; my mother's wedding ring.

I am so grateful for everything that survived the fire. Things are just things in the face of having one’s health or life, but some things are so entrenched in fond memories, that losing them is like having an emotional amputation. I am grateful for every photograph (especially those of my late mother). I cherish every item from my childhood. I have renewed appreciation for the mementos from our wedding (like the poster our friends and family signed at the reception). All the things that we didn’t loose are even more special to me now; they’re mini miracles—survivors, like us.

In the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life,” I’ll tell you about our five minutes of fame (one minute and twenty-nine seconds, to be exact).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

“More Than I Expected”

Brendan (left) and Eric Hodges

As trained volunteer firefighters, brothers Eric and Brendan Hodges were very familiar with putting out fires, but they had never been the victims of one.

Early one Saturday morning in November, Eric was working at his computer. Around 4 am, he started to smell smoke in their third floor apartment. His first instinct was to make sure nothing had fallen onto their radiator. But as he entered the living room, Eric saw flames coming from the bathroom; the window blinds were ablaze upon the floor. He turned on the shower to put out the fire, but then he noticed flames coming from the ceiling and wall.

Eric ran to his brother’s room to wake him up. While Eric grabbed his wallet and put some shoes on, Brendan also tried to put out the fire; but despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get it under control. Their apartment was quickly filling with smoke, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see or breathe, so Eric and Brendan left. Eric called 911, and Brendan ran through the three-story building banging on his neighbors’ doors. Thankfully, everyone got out.

An attendant from the gas station next door saw the flames and came over to make sure everyone was okay. He noticed Brendan standing outside without a shirt or shoes, gave him the sweatshirt off his back, and invited the brothers to come in out of the cold. Soon the Fire Department showed up, and the Red Cross was right behind them.

As volunteer firefighters, Eric (in Florida) and Brendan (in Delaware) had witnessed and helped contain hundreds of fires, but none of that prepared them for being on the other side of the experience—having it be their home.

They had no idea that the Red Cross offered Disaster Relief services to victims of fire. They were surprised to learn that not only would the Red Cross provide them with a place to stay, but that volunteers would also drive them to the hotel. The Red Cross also helped them make arrangements for the long-term housing they’ll need until their apartment is restored.

Eric and Brendan lost everything in the fire, including 50 pounds of dry-cleaning fresh from the cleaners. In fact, Brendan, who ran out shirtless and shoeless, had just moved into the apartment two months earlier. Given the magnitude of their loss, Eric and Brendan are grateful to the Red Cross for providing them with funds to buy food and clothes—not to mention a pair of shoes for Brendan.

The Red Cross is “Amazing … really awesome … more than I expected,” say the easy-going brothers. In response to the help and guidance they received from the Red Cross, Eric and Brendan said simply, “Thank you, thank you.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Five-Alarm Life: We Didn’t Start the Fire

by Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

This is what became of the apartment directly above ours.
 Isn’t it amazing how a flame that starts off small enough to fit on the wick of a candle, can become large enough to destroy a house? I distinctly remember standing in the snow with my husband watching the fire grow—first consuming this apartment, then the next, and ultimately the roof. I remember closing my eyes for long intervals of time and willing it all to not be real anymore. I suppose that’s shock. Even as I witnessed it, I just couldn’t believe this fire was destroying our home.

I remember being keenly aware of the people watching from their apartment windows in the building across the street from ours. I didn’t know who they were, but I envied them. I was jealous of every passerby who could shake their head saying, “Oh, what a terrible shame,” and then walk home to normalcy. And those teenagers gawking and uttering their thoughtless jokes as if this destruction had no victims…I wanted to scream at them. Instead, I held my tongue and continued to watch.

Part of me was silently praying (pleading) for this fire to be put out—cheering the firefighters on—hoping for their victory over a fire whose severity was being compounded by the high winds and the recent snowstorm. Another part of me was wondering how much worse it could get—how much more of our home would burn. Because even though putting out a fire is hard enough, these firefighters had to work in the aftermath of a storm that had brought New York City to its knees. Fire hydrants were frozen or simply broken, roads were impassible because they hadn’t been plowed and drivers had abandoned their cars in the middle of them. And apparently the person living in the apartment where the fire started had left the building without warning anyone. So on top of everything, the fire had gotten a big head start.

As I stood there watching helplessly, I knew I should be grateful that my husband and I had escaped with our lives—completely uninjured. In fact, no one in our building lost his or her life in that fire; no one suffered more than a few minor injuries. I didn’t fully understand the significance of that until later when a fireman told me about a fire that had broken out elsewhere the same week as ours. That fire had been smaller and less severe, but it had claimed the life of a young girl. So for a five-alarm fire to burn in a building with 66 apartments, and for everyone (young, old, and handicapped) to make it out safely, was something of a miracle.

We were grateful to be safe and alive, but then other thoughts and feelings started to surface. Questions, worries, and concerns began to bubble up in our minds. Had anything survived? We had left all of our earthly possessions behind. I began to tally and mourn all the irreplaceable things I might never see again—priceless because of their sentimental weight. What were we supposed to do now? Our home was effectively gone. A soggy, singed shell remained, but it could take months—possibly even a year—before it would be inhabitable again. One question, however, pressed its way to the forefront of our minds: How could this possibly have happened?

Our answer to that final question came a few days later when our building’s management company hosted a tenants’ meeting. In attendance were representatives from various city agencies, the fire department, and the Red Cross. My husband and I went for information. We wanted to know how the fire had started and when we might be able to return to our home. Sadly, most of the other tenants were there to blame and complain. And before too long, the meeting devolved into a verbal assault—various tenants throwing their angry accusations, threats, and demands like stones.

Sadly, there were no easy answers for any of us. First of all, the fire had been an accident. There was no one to punish. It wasn’t the result of negligence on the building’s part, or an electrician’s fault-ridden job. It wasn’t the work of an arsonist. No one that could be held accountable had screwed up. An older tenant had left her space heater too close to her bed; the sheets and mattress ignited, and the fire spread to the nearby curtains and beyond (or perhaps the curtains caught first and then the fire spread to the bed—I forget which now).

Secondly, even though the residents in the north wing of the building were able to return home just days after the fire, they wouldn’t be comfortable at first. The gas had to be shut off indefinitely, so the building’s management company gave tenants hot plates to cook on. The elevator was out of commission—effectively making our building a six-story walk-up. While this meant unwanted exercise for some, it was a prohibitive obstacle for those tenants with mobility limitations. Adding to the discomfort, every apartment had some level of water damage and was subject to smoky air and mold growth.

But the news was even worse for those of us in the most damaged apartments—those closest to the nexus of the fire. While the rest of the building’s residents would be moved back in on a rolling basis as their apartments were dried out, patched up, and brought up to code, our apartments would need to be gutted and completely rebuilt before we could return. And before any of that could happen, the roof over our part of the building (which the fire had devoured) would have to be rebuilt. No one could even venture a ballpark estimate as to how long all of that would take. Without even a worst-case scenario to hold on to, I felt some of my hope dissipate.

So what options did we have if we couldn’t go home? When we met with Marjorie, our Red Cross caseworker, she answered that question and our many (many, many) others. Talking to her was like talking to a friend who knows the ropes. She immediately reduced our burden. Rather than having to navigate though a confusing sea of paperwork and options, we were given clear and actionable steps tailored to our specific situation and resources. Marjorie guided us through every process and saved us the countless hours of time we would have otherwise spent trying to figure things out on our own. And while I won’t speak for my husband’s mental state, I was in no shape to do much thinking on my own. My brain was overloaded—full of sadness and worry—still tallying our loss. Plus, I had insomnia; I was emotionally depleted and physically exhausted.

But whereas I was frazzled and mentally distraught, our caseworker was patient, compassionate and knowledgeable. The guidance she gave us was timesaving and invaluable, but I also appreciated the stuff. My hands were full of papers I had to fill out, but I didn’t have anything to put them in—I hadn’t grabbed a bag when we evacuated. Marjorie put all the paperwork from the Red Cross in a folder, and that folder became our makeshift filing “cabinet.” Every piece of paper we acquired due to the fire went inside it. She also gave me a bag. When I asked her for one, I was expecting a simple plastic grocery bag, or at most a nice paper one, but she brought me a durable canvas tote with a zipper closure. That bag meant a lot to me. Now that I had something to carry my things in, I felt a lot less desperate—I felt less like a crazy vagabond. That bag was one of the first signs that our lives were moving out of chaos and towards order.

By the time my husband and I left Red Cross headquarters, we’d managed to muster up more than a modicum of hope. I now had a bag, a toothbrush and tissues (which I needed because I was also getting a cold). We left the Red Cross with more than we’d gone in with—in terms of stuff as well as direction. It felt good to have a plan—to know what we should do next. The fire was still a devastating loss, but we weren’t as disoriented now. We didn’t have a home, but we did have hope.

Where did we end up living? Were we able to salvage anything from our apartment? All that (and more) to come in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

My Five-Alarm Life: An Introduction

By Aabye-Gayle Francis-Favilla
Back in December of 2010, my husband and I were displaced from our home due to a fire. There have been many ups and downs and sharp left turns since that fateful day when we stood shivering in the cold watching helplessly as a five-alarm fire destroyed our home (and the homes of our neighbors).

The months since then have been a frenzy of mixed emotions, and have tested the farthest reaches of our patience and ability to hope. We have been challenged, and we have been blessed; we have been happy and depressed. We have literally and figuratively been tried by fire and burnt out, but we have also been inspired and refreshed. We have survived the flames, and are now trying to thrive in their wake.

Since the fire, the path of our lives has been dramatically altered. Life has gone on, but we have had to start over. This blog series will explore how the fire has changed us—what we’ve lost, gained and learned. Here I will tell you our story—the good, the sad, and the funny. Here you will be able to go on our journey with us. Welcome to “My Five-Alarm Life.”

It was two days after Christmas. My husband and I were having a normal evening at home. Our computers were open, the television was on, and we were debating what to make for dinner. We were already in our pajamas. All of a sudden, we heard screaming. At first I thought someone was having an argument in our hallway, but then I started to hear what was actually being screamed, “Fire! Get out!”

Even then I wasn’t particularly alarmed. I just assumed it was an over-reaction and calmly walked to the door of my apartment to see how serious it was. As I looked up, I saw a seemingly insignificant amount of smoke coming down the stairwell. After years of false alarms and fire drills, I assumed the least serious scenario: someone had burnt popcorn or toast or something.

My husband, however, saw something completely different. He had run to the windows of our apartment and looked out. He could see, reflected in the windows of the building across the street, that flames were spilling out of an apartment one floor up. Understanding the severity of the situation, my husband rushed to get our shoes and coats so we could leave. I however, not having seen the flames with my own eyes, and still in “this can’t be that serious mode,” took the time to change out of my pajamas and into jeans.

The odd thing is that while part of my brain was convinced this was all a minor event, another part of my brain suspected or knew this was serious. My “this is Not Serious” or “NS” brain figured, given the cold temperature and snow outside, I should get dressed for standing outside for an hour. I thought to myself, “This is like that time in college when someone left a hairbrush on their radiator. There’s a lot of smoke, but no fire. As soon as the firemen get here, they’ll check it out and let us back in.”

But then there was the “VS” or the “this could be Very Serious” part of my brain that quickly understood I might lose everything I left behind. That is the part of my brain that made me move quickly—getting my foot stuck in one of the pre-distressed holes of my jeans as I hurriedly forced my legs in. That is also the part of my brain that told me to put on my wedding band and engagement ring.

I was literally in one of those cheesy hypothetical questions, “Your house is on fire, what do you save?” With my husband screaming at me that we had to get out and NOW, I started to become panic-rushed. I went to get my coat, my cell phone, and my house keys. As though I was just leaving to run an errand, I turned off all the lights and locked the door to our apartment. Oddly enough, I neglected to take my wallet or car keys.

Soon my husband and I were standing across the street from our building, watching as bright orange flames raged out of an apartment one floor above and one unit over from ours. Even then, I had hope. I now understood that this wasn’t just overcooked popcorn, but I also thought that our apartment would be fine as long as the fire stayed where it was. And why wouldn’t it stay where it was? Weren’t firefighters—even now—on their way?

Yes, they were on their way, but the massive, city-crippling snowstorm from the day before meant they had to repeatedly stop to dig out and tow abandoned cars blocking their route. Frozen hydrants on our block meant firefighters had to link hoses to hydrants three or four blocks away. And the winds were raging upwards of fifty miles per hour. It was a bad day for a building to catch on fire.

Now that I saw a real fire was underway, and how many obstacles were keeping the firefighters from getting it under control, I kicked myself for leaving so much behind, for not putting on better shoes, for not taking any form of identification or my only set of car keys. I thought about the teddy bear I’d had since I was born and the Christmas presents we’d just brought home. I thought about our wedding pictures and the photos of my mother who had passed away several years before. I even thought about the pomegranate I’d been looking forward to having for dessert.

The firefighters worked tirelessly, but whenever it seemed the flames were coming under control, another burst of fire would erupt and rage again. It sounded like a thousand furnaces all going at once. Soon we could see that the fire had spread to the apartment directly above ours and that a large section of our building’s roof had ignited. We watched with lead-filled stomachs as the firemen used our apartment to get into the building from the fire escape.

After about three hours of standing, shivering and watching, I began to suspect that hypothermia or frostbite was imminent. My husband had already headed towards his brother’s house to get warm. I walked to a nearby Laundromat and tried to regain the feeling in my fingers and toes.

This is when I started to lose some of my hope. I was doing the math. This fire had been burning for upwards of four hours and was now classified as a five-alarm blaze. It wasn’t worth it to stand around waiting. There would be no home to return to that night. Tearfully, I started walking the mile and a half to my brother-in-law’s home where my husband was waiting for me. Once I got there, we tried to figure out what to do next. We were smoky and shell-shocked. We had nothing but our cell phones and the clothes on our backs. We were overwhelmed.

When we went to our building the following morning, a Red Cross volunteer was there. He told us that we could receive guidance and financial assistance for immediate necessities if we visited Red Cross Headquarters. So that’s what we did.

What started the fire? How did the Red Cross help us? All that (and more) to come in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”