By Aabye-Gayle Francis-Favilla
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.”