Set fire to the snow

I initially wake to the sound of a siren. For a moment, I don’t open my eyes. Sirens are very common in the city, and it’s only 7:30 in the morning. But the very next second, I smell the smoke. It smells strong, and like melting plastic. It’s enough to get me out of bed to find the source. I race to the living room to open the shades.  I can see several firetrucks on the street, and smoke billowing from somewhere close by.  I can’t see which house it is, or any flames, but then I see ash starting to swirl down past the window.  That’s when I start to panic.

I wake up Patrick, who is on the couch.  He got up with Owen a couple of hours earlier and they are both in deep sleep.  I tell him to go get the girls out of bed in case we need to evacuate.  It turns out that they were already up; their room reeked of the smoke – apparently, the smoke got trapped in the airshaft.  I sent Patrick outside to investigate.

The fire was three doors down.  The thick smoke was billowing towards our building, and because our apartment is so drafty, it smelled terrible inside.  Our new car with the three carseats was parked right in front of the burning house.   At first we thought we lost our bumper.  It turns out our bumper was fine – the fire hose connected to the hydrant was the same color as our car, and from a distance, it looked like the bumper was hanging.  I heard a firefighter call out “we don’t have any water!”  That really scared me.  How long would this fire burn?  Would it travel all the way down to our building?  I also thought about how crazy it must be to fight fires in the city – the streets are narrow, cars parked along both sides.

I wasn’t sure if the fire was traveling, or if it was safe to stay home breathing in the smoke.  I decided it was better to leave.  The kids were already dressed, but what do I wear?  What do I take with me?  It’s not like our building was on fire, and we needed to get out immediately.  I had time to think.  If you could only take one outfit with you, which would it be?  The jeans were easy – I had a new favorite pair.  I went into my closet and was kind of overwhelmed for a minute looking at my shirts and sweaters.  How could I choose?

I realize this makes me sound materialistic, and I guess that I am.  Obviously, getting my family out safely is the top priority, and in a real emergency, I wouldn’t spend one second thinking about what to take.  With a few minutes thought, I took my Nook, my external hard drive with all of the baby pictures, my wallet.  I was already wearing all of my best jewelry – my wedding and engagement rings, my stud earrings from my mom, the new necklace from P, my Erickson MJS ring.    It’s not an accident that I was wearing all these things – not only are they my everyday favorite jewelry, I actually do think about the fact that if I needed to leave quickly, these are the (material) things I would most sorely miss and would be the most devastating to lose.  I also thought about grabbing bottles for Owen and was momentarily angry at myself for no longer breastfeeding him.  But then I came back to my senses and realized that, if needed, we could buy bottles and formula.  Even if we couldn’t return to our house, CVS is still around the corner.

One game I’ve always hated is when you are asked to decide between things in a hypothetical emergency. You know, if you have five minutes to evacuate, what would you grab?   What if you had twenty minutes?  An hour?   The worst is having to decide who you would save if you could only save one person.  I’m not sure why I’ve obsessed over this through the years – I must have been traumatized by Sophie’s Choice as a child.

Ever since I became a mother, I’ve become paranoid about certain things involving my children.  Drowning in a pool is right up there.  But fire is number one.  We live in a weird apartment – the girls room is all the way down a narrow hallway, and we have bars on our bedroom window.  I often lay in bed at night planning out escape routes, contingencies, thinking about what I would grab for the kids depending on the weather.  I think about where my shoes are, especially if I had to grab the girls and escape through the air shaft.  All my thinking and planning didn’t help me today.  I was frozen for a couple of minutes, weighing the options of what we should do.  But I  believe that it’s because I had time to think about it, and that if it had been a real emergency, there would have been no hesitation.

We all have our quirks – before we could leave, P insisted on clearing all of the drains on the street.  Once the water started flowing, the street quickly flooded from all of the snow piling on the side of the road.  Since we live on the ground floor and are prone to flooding, I was worried that we’d have another sewer back up.  P was worried about my car getting flooded, or at the very least, getting trapped once the several feet of water froze.

Once we were all dressed (we threw snowpants on the girls in case we’d be gone for a while), we went outside to take refuge at our Dunkin Donuts.  The police had taped off the street starting at our building, and they were not letting people down the street without showing proof of residency.  I saw a large crowd gathered down the other end of the street.  As usual, the lovely kids in the hood drew pictures of penises and dirty sayings in the fresh snow on all of our cars.  My car had “I heart chooch” written over a picture of a penis on my windshield.  What on earth is chooch?  Why do they always draw penises, anyway?  A lone red Solo cup rolled around on the sidewalk.  These things really struck me as so juvenile and silly compared to the horror that had taken place just a few doors down. We saw some of the firefighters at Dunkin Donuts and one told us that several people jumped out of windows to escape the fire.  A group of kids at a table nearby lived right next door to the fire – one guy was lamenting the fact that he was wearing his beer and pretzel print pajama pants, but there was no time to get dressed. I know how he felt – last night, I wore a tank top and boxers to bed.  Had this been a real emergency today, not only would I have been humiliated, I would have frozen my butt off.

No one died in this fire, but we heard that one person is in critical condition.  I am anxious to hear about how the fire started.  The residents in that building were mostly BU students.  Living in a densely populated area with so many students around, I always fear someone falling asleep with a cigarette, or forgetting to put out a candle.  At the end of the day, we can’t control what other people do.  But this definitely made me realize that having an emergency plan is really important, and perhaps that a little paranoia is not a bad thing.


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