When I was six my elementary school had a fire safety assembly and invited a young man who had been burned over 80% of his body. He had no fingers and since this was the 80’s and plastic surgery isn’t what it is now, looked like he’d been melted and then someone tried to shape him back into a person. He was very clever and charming and an amazing public speaker. It has been almost 35 years and I remember his words, they in fact haunt me. I have been terrified of fire ever since.
Mine is not a normal reasonable fear but something that I have lost sleep over. When I smoked I didn’t light cigarettes in my mouth. I looked like a crazy person but I wasn’t going to put an open flame three inches from my face. I also don’t go to bonfires, I rarely light candles, and any time I use a match I run it under water before I’m willing to dispose of it. I don’t just check the location of exits on planes. I do it everywhere I go. I used to do my own fire drills as a child. Which my parents probably didn’t question because they were just happy I was going outside.
I’ve been in two buildings that were on fire. This feels like an excessive amount, but I refuse to look at the statistics because I need to feel special and I’m afraid that might be average. The first time was in college. When I was a junior, several rooms in my dorm on the floor beneath me caught fire. No one was injured but it was scary. The second time was Saturday night. And I barely registered fear for some reason. Possibly because a gypsy told me I would die on November 3, 2056 in a boating accident. I love boats. I don’t mind dying on a boat. As long as it isn’t a cruise ship. I refuse to die full of buffet shrimp after listening to Kathy Lee Gifford sing.
Since it was September 30, 2017 and I wasn’t on a boat I stayed calm. I stayed calm even when the smoke was thick in the stairwell. I was choking on it as I went outside. My building has impressive protections that keep fires from really getting going. So I knew the fire would be out shortly. What lingers in my mind is the effort the arsonist put in. He and presumably a partner lit fires on three floors and in the elevator. The elevator thing is especially messed up because as it returned to the lobby it filled the corridors with smoke and when the doors opened it released enough smoke to briefly convince us that the fire may be in the lobby and we were trapped. It was like the perpetrator was trying to keep us in the building to burn.
As far as I can tell there is no reason to burn the building down. Witnesses who saw the guy with the can of accelerant gave statements to the police and I hope they find the guy. Thank God for the intrusive security cameras and patrols. And I appreciate the tenants that used fire extinguishers to get the fires under control before the Fire Department arrived. Two of the heroes are a gay couple I’ve been giving the stink-eye for months because their dog is poorly house trained and poops in the building. They clean it up too slowly in my opinion. Saving my earthly possessions earns them two weeks of goodwill and forgiveness. I have some takeaways:
1) Whereas all I grabbed was my purse, a sweater, and my cellphone, others grabbed valuables. I don’t know if I have a healthy attitude towards the value of my life versus things, or I don’t own any valuables. I really hope it is the former. My neighbors stood in the fall air with televisions, guitars, a painting, and Spider Man collectibles. The TV is especially odd. We all have renter’s insurance. It is added onto your rent if you don’t have your own policy. So that TV would’ve been replaced if the building burned. Could it have enough sentimental value that when his life was on the line it was worth the two minutes it took to unplug it and carry it down five flights of stairs? Everything I grabbed was designed to make being out of a home less traumatizing. A phone so I could call people, my money and identification so I wouldn’t be helpless, and a sweater because it was cold out. All of these things were on my way to the door. I didn’t look at my television.
2) My neighbors have ice water in their veins. I wasn’t particularly panicked when I heard the alarms. We have had a few false alarms when someone burned a casserole or sprayed something into a smoke detector. But when we reached the lower floors and the smoke was thick and dark I wanted to move about twice as fast as we were, while the people in front of me were transporting a cat in a special carrier and letting their toddlers walk at their own speed instead of picking them up. My mama didn’t raise me to trample children, old people, or cats so I moved languidly down the stairs. But I didn’t want to.
3) I am a rare woman. Most studies show that women make better witnesses than men because we notice details. We take note of what people are wearing and estimate height and weight well. That is apparently not true for me. I saw the arsonist but took no note of him. If someone else hadn’t said I was with them in the elevator when he declined to get on while looking suspicious I wouldn’t even know I saw him. All men look suspicious to me at night because I live alone and listen to podcasts about unsolved murders. I keep my head on a swivel but I don’t memorize faces until I get a gut feeling or a guy gets into my space. I will endeavor to be more nosy in the future.
I suspect my priorities are a bit askew. Someone kind of tried to murder me and approximately 300 other people and I was less upset about that than someone being bitchy to me at work. I guess they’re right. It really is the little things.