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.”

1 comment:

  1. Aabye-Gayle,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I've always believed that people don't come across your life without a purpose or meaning. My clients, including you, all left a special foot print in my life. It was truly a pleasure assisting your husband and you through such difficult times. I'm also happy and grateful to know that you are helping others now in such a meaningful way. I wish you both all the best.

    With kind regards,



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