Monday, April 05, 2010

The Night I Almost Died

Ten years ago I was living in this cute third floor attic apartment in New Haven.

(Sunny Norton Street)

A decade ago, on April 5th, 2000, I was heading to bed late that night after staying up late going through photos and letters I was sending to Ireland. My family and I were about a month home from my cousin James’ wedding in Newcastle and I was sending off copies of photos I took to the sundry relatives.  Around midnight I realized I had to be up early the next morning and hurried off to bed.  My cat, Pye, was in heat so rather than have her mewling all night, I put her in her cat-tote and went to bed.

About an hour later, I was awoken by noises that sounded like wood being picked apart.  My first thought was of the hippies on the floor below me, who were partying early that night, and that maybe some drunk was trying to get into my apartment by breaking the door.  I put my glasses and slippers on and reached for the lamp by the bed.  When it didn’t turn on and neither did the room light, I grabbed a flashlight I had by the bed and headed to the large closet next to my bedroom that served as a utility closet and storage space and housed the breakers and the hot water heater. I opened the door and BLOOOOM! A cloud of smoke and flame shot out at me - the wall and roof of the closet were wreathed with Fire.

I stood there, dumbfounded for about ten seconds while the concept that my home was on Fire slid into my brain and then a half second of wondering if the water spray nozzle from the sink could have reached here, when the realization that the Fire was in the same room as the gas heater slapped me awake. I ran for the door, grabbing the cat-tote and the cell phone, madly dialing 911.


“My house is on Fire!!!!”

911 told me the fire department was on the way and to get everyone out of the house.  I knew that the Fire probably cut the power so I started banging on the first floor door and then running back up to the second floor and pounded as loud as I could on their door.  Smoke was now descending from my third floor door to the landing on the second.  It could have only been about 60 seconds from my discovery to that moment, but already the smoke was making it difficult to see so when the smoke pushed me back, I headed to the porch.  The girls on the first floor cracked their door open giving me a wary eye until I yelled that the place was on Fire!  (I remember being frantic - they later told me I was very calm).  One of the girls said the hippies on the second floor had gone out earlier so they probably where not home.

We stood across the street.  In the 5 minutes it took the fire department to arrive, thick smoke was now billowing out of my closed windows and climbing skyward.  I saw light on the roof, the roof above my bed, that was the Fire breaking through to the outside.  Suddenly the cold freezing April morning hit me and I wished I took a coat or my keys or a blanket or even my wallet and I stood there shivering in my T-shirt and pajamas.

We watched the firemen pour into the house.  At one point I turned to someone and said “the roof - the roof is on fire!” and laughed at my unintentional reference. A ladder truck dropped men onto the roof where they started attacking the roof with axes.  Inside, they started breaking all the windows.  The shattering of glass with fire axes sounds just like it does in movies. 

One of the hippies’ girlfriend suddenly appeared next to us.  She had been asleep on the second floor and woke up to an apartment full of smoke and firemen.  Everyone in our normally quiet neighborhood was now up.  The old drunk who in the house next to us muttered “ain’t it awful when bad t’ings happen to good people?” before tottering back to his place, next to our still burning house. 

I started to shiver hard now, my teeth chattering, from the cold and from nerves.  A few of the firemen slipped on the front stoop when water from their hoses leaked and froze. A neighbor, who I never met, gave us sweaters and in all that craziness I don’t know if I ever thanked her for that spot of kindness.  And there were a few times I stood there, ready to retch and release that knot in my stomach that kept rising, especially when I saw through my skylight how the fire was all over the ceiling and walls in my apartment.

20 minutes in, the commissary truck arrived giving out water and lemonade to the exhausted firemen.  I overheard one of them talk about how hot and intense the Fire was.  Some of the firemen apologized for not saving things like the large collection of comics I had.  They were all very gracious. They told me they tried to save all the photo albums and pictures I had and took stuff off the wall and put tarps over them to protect them.

An hour later it was over.  They told us that the inspector would be there soon to check out the place and would allow us to go in an get a few things.  I made a call to my parents that started out “Dad? It’s me.  Listen.  I’m all right but my house was on Fire and the cat and I will need to come up in a little while.  No you don’t have to come down.”

About 3 am they let the first floor in.  Then the second.  Then me.

It was a holocaust.  Worse than I thought.  What the Fire didn’t burn nor the smoke did not scorch and stain, the water drowned and axes broke.  I walked around carefully in a daze, stepping through my soggy wet house wondering what to take.  My journals.  My photo albums. My clothes.  Keys.  Wallet.  Coat.  Check book.  Camera.  Glasses. A certain 20 books out of 1200.  I now know the answer to the question of what I would take from a burning building.

When left the house, my parents were standing there waiting for me, having driven down from Bethany to get me.   I lost it then.  Packed my cat and what I had and they took me home.