On the morning of September 10, I was awakened at about 6:30 by the telephone. It was our next door neighbor, Elly Freeman, who some of you may know, calling to tell us that there was a fire in the building. (Someone had gone around ringing doorbells, but she figured we might not have heard them--I'd noticed vaguely but not realized it was someone at our door, rather than someone trying to get into the building by buzzing from downstairs. Andy heard neither doorbell nor phone--I woke him.)
We grabbed clothes, decided we'd never catch and box the cat quickly, checked the front door for heat, and went into the hallway. Andy had gotten about six steps down the first flight of stairs when a cloud of smoke came billowing up.
We retreated to the apartment, shut the door behind us, and decided to go down the fire escape. (As opposed to up the fire escape, to the roof--we live on the top floor.) As long as we were back in the apartment for a minute, I took the time to grab my keys (Andy already had his), put my shoes on, because I wasn't going down a fire escape barefoot, and grab my glasses.
Unlock the gate and down we go. Fire escapes are steep, but manageable. Down, across, down, across, here comes another fire engine, down, across, stop.
There were vines growing across the fire escape, and looping around the supports. I couldnít just brush them aside, so I tore them and continued down, a little more slowly, since I needed my hands free for impromptu weeding and couldn't hold on to the railing as much. Down, across, down, as the vines grew thicker.
I reached into my pocket, remembering vaguely that, in that moment of "what do I need most?" and almost leaving without my glasses, I'd grabbed my Swiss army knife. Unfold the saw blade, cut through the vines. Down to the first floor level. A nice flat platform, and a ladder hanging from a hook. I put the knife away, Andy reached up, unhooked the ladder, and climbed down.
I hate ladders.
I stood there for a few minutes, more afraid of needing to lean out to start going down the ladder than of the fire--at that point we saw no flames, smoke, or firefighters. Andy talked me down, and we walked up a flight of stairs from the odd concrete not-quite-courtyard we'd landed in, to the parking lot, then around the building and across the street to the park.
We stood a while with Elly, a lot of other neighbors, and a random bicyclist who'd stopped to watch, as the firefighters threw a few flaming bricks and a bed out the window, and carefully removed a window and placed the air conditioner inside the apartment. I remember the cyclist because he had a bottle of water, and gave me some when I asked. (I generally wake up slightly thirsty, and climbing down six flights of stairs and a ladder didn't help.) Another neighbor lent me an extra jacket--the shirt that had first come to hand was a London Underground t-shirt, quite attractive but not the ideal choice for a chilly morning.
We got the all-clear to go back in about 40 minutes after Elly woke us. So we did, found the cat (who was perfectly fine and slightly confused--why did we go out the window and leave it wide open, without even a screen? And what is that odd smell?), showered, and went to work. I didnít get all that much done Thursday--I was still running largely on adrenaline, and jumping whenever the phone rang--but I did take the time to call the fire department and ask them to send an inspector to make sure the landlord got all the vines off the fire escapes. We're sent regular "don't leave anything on the fire escapes" memos, and nobody had--except that the building management hadn't kept the plants under control. (It was porcelain berry that had jumped from a mulberry tree: that stuff grows fast, and they probably ought to go after it at least twice a summer, unless they manage to get rid of it at the root, which I gather isn't easy.)
Climbing down the fire escape used thigh muscles that I don't use on normal stairs; for a few days afterward, it hurt not only to climb stairs (down was worse than up), but to walk any distance, or to sit down. More precisely, standing was okay, and sitting was okay, but the transition was painful, in either direction. I had to wait it out, with some help from rubbing the muscles: I tried aspirin, ibuprofen, and the (possibly stale) remnants of a Tylenol-with-codeine prescription, and none of them had any effect on the ache.
When I related all this to my mother, she said she didn't know anyone who'd actually gone down a fire escape. And if I hadn't used it, I would probably have wondered, later, why I'd grabbed my Swiss army knife as one of the few things to head out into the world with (I did also take my wallet, and took the time to put on a bra on the theory that if we were burned out, I wanted to own one bra that fit, since I have trouble finding same). As it is, I've decided that the next Swiss army knife (probably soon--this one is showing its age) will have a saw blade. I may have used it four times in a dozen years, but I was very glad of it that morning.
We lost nothing except sleep and calm; the apartment the fire started in was totaled, and there was minor damage to the ones immediately above and below. They sent eight fire engines and two ambulances, but I gather that policy is to send lots of equipment to apartment house fires, just in case.
Oh, and possibly reliable gossip (I talked to someone who said she'd talked to the person who lived in the burned-out apartment where the fire had started) is that the fire started because someone fell asleep with a cigarette, and got worse because he woke up and, instead of getting out, closing the door, and calling 911 from the nearest phone booth (about 10 feet from the building entrance), tried to put it out himself. I know you've heard this before, but please donít smoke in bed.
Copyright 1999 Vicki Rosenzweig.
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