Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Our Few Minutes of Fame

by Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Screen Capture from NY1 Report
Having a fire in your home is (in some ways) like having a birthday: Even though it’s a big deal for you, most of the world is oblivious. The fire in our building was so violent, so destructive, and so long-lived (it took hours for the firefighters to get it under control), we were certain it would be the leading news story on every channel. It wasn’t. If it was mentioned at all, it was as a small tangential aside to what was considered the bigger story, the recent city-crippling snowstorm.

That’s the thing with fires—even though they can be highly destructive events, they only affect a small proportion of the population. That fire was the most violent and frightening event we had ever experienced, but few of our fellow New Yorkers would ever hear about it. Why? Well, first of all, it wouldn’t affect many of them. Secondly, fires happen often. To be considered newsworthy, a fire has to be more than just a fire. It has to take lives or be otherwise exceptional. It is a traumatic, but largely private, event.

When my husband and I arrived at the Red Cross to meet with our case manager, we met another family in the waiting room. At first I assumed they were from our building. It never occurred to me that ours hadn’t been the only fire that week—let alone that very night. In fact, there had been a number of fires in New York the same week as ours. (The Red Cross says it responds to approximately six private residence fires every day in New York City.)

There’s another way having a fire is like having a birthday. A part of you wants everyone you encounter to know. This devastating thing has happened to you, but most of the world is going on as though everything is normal—because everything is normal—for them. But for you, life has been shaken like a snow globe. Everything has been thrown into confusion, and you’re still waiting to see how all of the fractured pieces settle. So, like on your birthday, you want everyone to know about the momentous occasion and be especially nice to you. You’re sad and raw and a bit afraid. And it would be helpful if everyone knew what you were going through so that they’d be sensitive and patient and understanding—even if they’re a stranger.

I needed a lot of patience and sensitivity in the weeks after the fire. My emotions were still in recovery mode. I was sleep-deprived, and as a result my brain was under-functioning. I was easily confused (sarcasm was lost on me), distracted (mostly by a litany of worries on repeat), forgetful (how old was I again?), and acting like a narcoleptic during the day—even mid-conversation. My inability to get good rest was also aggravating a serious cold. I was not just mentally weak, but physically compromised as well.

Aside from our closest friends, family and neighbors, most people had no idea what we were going through—or why we smelled like smoke. Fortunately, our story was not anonymous or faceless in the eyes of the Red Cross. We weren’t just case numbers on a crisis conveyor belt. We were seen as individuals in a specific situation. We were treated with compassion and patience. We were heard. On the day we met with our case manager, we were also encouraged to share our story. A Red Cross staff writer interviewed us for this very blog so that others could be made more aware of how the Red Cross serves the community. (You can see that story here) We were also later asked to be part of a Red Cross fundraising video.

However, most exciting for us, was being interviewed for NY1 about a week later. They wanted to do a story about our building’s fire. We couldn’t believe it; we were going to be on television! The circumstances were by no means enviable, but this would be our five minutes of fame—well, 1:29 minutes of “fame” (to be exact). We appreciated having another opportunity to share about what had happened and how the Red Cross had helped us. It was fun calling friends and family and telling them to look out for us on the news. (You can see the story here.)

In the aftermath of the most devastating event we’d ever faced as a couple, my husband and I were grateful for each opportunity we were given to have our loss acknowledged. With our story on the Red Cross blog and our little NY1 television debut, more people would know about what had happened, and, hopefully, they would learn a few things along with us: don’t be careless with your space heaters (as our neighbor had been); when evacuating (time permitting) take some form of identification with you (and your car keys); never ignore smoke or screams; and if you rent, invest in renter’s insurance—right now.

More about renter’s insurance (and everything else we were grateful for after the fire) in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”

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