So here I am: three years later and unless you speak to me, you’d have no clue we had a fire. I’ve nestled into our new apartment like a bird in a blizzard. I’ve made things, shopped sales, accepted donations, gotten gifts, traded my crafts or done other swaps for original pieces of this or that. We’ve gotten on our feet, but there are the irreplaceables and the slower things (like craft supplies, artwork, and antiques). I’ll never have that sword chair handed down from generations or my grandmama’s crystal filled with fingerpuppet monsters. But I have our lives and many brightly colored things around us.
I like it here. This new apartment. It’s nicer and it has a view and better lighting. It also has a washer/dryer. That doesn’t mean I’m glad our other place burned down. It just means that life goes on. Sometimes that sounds very trite if I’m not in the frame of mind. Especially back when I was so overwhelmed. When I say that I like this place better I’m overwhelmed with guilt. It’s a step to say that out loud: this apartment rocks. It doesn’t mean I wanted any of all that to happen. We deserve a bright, happy spot after all the doom and gloom.
Since I haven’t written anything about it since it happened and I was swimming in emotions I will explain what happened.
On 17 Feb, a Thursday, I met a friend to go baby-swag shopping; I was 25 weeks pregnant and really excited. It was the day everyone was protesting Chik-fil-a but Brandon had been like OMG, I didn’t even know we had one around here! I want some! I was like, well, I’ll be right there if you want to meet up with me. He did.
Otherwise we absolutely would have been home for this. I usually met this friend on Friday so even the day was off to begin with.
I was still working three 12 hour shifts at the bar every week and I was in a ton of pain so on my days off I laid low.
We got off the bus a block before our street and saw all the smoke and chaos starting but thought we were OK; there had been another fire a month before three blocks down that had seemed even closer from a distance. While we were grabbing a few things in the grocery store we saw our neighbors there with a little basket doing the same.
Then we went to pay and saw the street being closed off; it is a major road in Philadelphia. It had to be bad. Helicopters. We ran. This part of my story I have written about already. That can be found here.
They told us we could probably go home that night…they…Red Cross? Firefighters? I don’t know. I assumed the electricity had to be shut off because water was being hosed everywhere inside. The fact that all our windows had been broken down and the roof was gone hadn’t sunk in. I don’t know why anyone would tell us that…it gave me this enormous thread of hope. “If not tonight, tomorrow you’ll get to go in and clean up.”
The next day we rushed back to the building with my heart in my throat, calling for my cats. They were the only animals not recovered the night before – however the actual fire had only been on the top floor. our floor. I was the only one who had animals up there. Logically there was no way for them to escape. I knew that. However one word of: don’t give up! cats are quick! would send my heart racing with hope again.
There was no hope, though. They were found dead under our couch six weeks later when demolition on our building started. They were together. I’m not sure if that is comforting. I’m not sure about anything being a comfort.
People were. I have written a lot about the kindness of strangers and the love of friends. This is meant to be more about the cold, hard facts and how my brain was digesting them.
I was sitting in NICU when I got the phone call. It took me over two years to accept the diagnosis for my premature delivery: stress. I thought that because I’d managed to stay pregnant for another four weeks and a few days that I’d beat it. However, four of those weeks were spent sleeping on a floor without a single comfort from home. Strange pillow, motel soap samples. Tristan would have thrashing fits inside of me. The night after the fire someone called and said they saw one of my cats. I ran so hard. Some drunk girls made fun of me. It was just some other grey cat in an alley though.
One of the things I asked the firefighters while we were sitting across the street was where it started. I thought I’d fall over dead if it had been because of Christmas lights I leave on all the time. What if it had been my fault?
They said it started in the hallway. Odd but we didn’t think much about it. We were questioned. I realize now that they were eliminating suspects and checking alibis.
It turns out there was an altercation between my neighbor (unstable and would slip into screaming fits that sounded like a priest needed to be called) and the quiet college couple beneath him. They fought in two different languages, nobody understood, anger elevated. My neighbor didn’t know where they came from. I don’t think he had the capacity for that. He took a liquid accelerent and poured it down our hallway. He kicked in one of our doors (the fire escape to the hallway) and poured a line into our bedroom then made sure to put some on everyone’s door.
He went home – back into his unit. He later had to be dragged out of the building by firefighters.
A few minutes after the yelling in the hall some children on the floor below smelled the smoke and told their parents. Firefighters responded in three minutes. The couple across from us were home making dinner. At first the husband thought his wife had burned something but quickly realized it wasn’t that so grabbed her but with his door on fire they couldn’t get out. They climbed out the window and stood on a moulding edge – something we didn’t have on our side. Plus, with my belly holding a baby…
The fire ripped down the hall and into the door he knocked down and leapt into the track ceiling and then shot over our apartment. It didn’t get past the kitchen before firefighters were there but that did cause our ceiling to collapse and for it to rain fire in the bedroom and kitchen. I would have been laying on the bed watching Bones. That’s what I did. I might have made it as far as the living room like the cats…at best.
It’s a scary thought. People say we’re blessed, but I really can’t stand that wording. That means other people who didn’t make it aren’t blessed in my brain. We were lucky. Fortunate. …a lot of things.
I sincerely believe he thought he was going to get revenge on those around him and that he didn’t know he’d be affected by his actions. He was arrested for a second but then let go after they realized he was unstable. He joined us at the Red Cross room set up for us across the street. Many of the residents felt he’d done something. For one of the first times I felt compassion towards him – normally highly annoying. He looked so sad. He loved his apartment, he rarely left, why would he do something?
After the investigation was complete his mental disability gave him a loophole. He wasn’t prosecuted. I hear he lives nearby.
I don’t, and haven’t, had any real feelings about what he did. He is a man who isn’t home. He isn’t capable of understanding.
I experienced all the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, etc.
What would life have been like without that flicker of flame? Without that match or lighter or whatever?
One spark, y’all. I don’t mean to go all Smokey the Bear, but that’s all it takes to erase your life: material or otherwise. There was a lady on my floor who had lived there for 20 years; she died of a broken heart about a month later.
It nearly broke me, too. It was bigger than my brain could process but I had to keep going. Brandon and I had our wedding planned already for two weeks and two days from the night of the fire.
That’s the only reason I was allowed up the next morning: I was allowed to get our wedding rings. I looted some of my other things quickly and Brandon went back once a week to see if he could dig anything up. There are some precious things an some stuff that I can only shake my head at…like a cute bendy wire girl that was in a purse. Or, why did the bathroom walls melt but all my lipsticks kept their shape inside strong MAC packaging? Why couldn’t I trade those in for something I really cared about?
The cats really get me, though…still. I can still feel the warmth I woke up with that morning as they slept closely against my body. How Fog kept doing silly things and how Lily smelled like cookies when I picked her up for a hug.
Most of all I am thankful all our lives were spared. Brandon wanted chik-fil-a and Tristan came two weeks after our wedding instead of twelve. I had to sit in NICU for two months and rebuild a home at the same time. It was really, really hard.
That first year…so hard.
The next, easier.
Now…I don’t have to look at the calendar. Christmas passes and I remember how Brandon and I took silly pictures with a tree in the snow. Then Valentine’s Day when we held hands and walked to an Indian restaurant down the street.
It was unseasonably warm and I chose the wrong pair of Docs and my stupid denim jacket and changed purses to one I never carry that morning I left the house. I got five things while I was out: three scented lotions including one with glitter, a cupcake room spray, and a roller perfume of Kate Spade’s new fragrance; Twirl. Nothing for baby. I didn’t see anything I wanted and I had gathered so many of the essentials at our local thrift store. I didn’t need maternity clothes yet and I’d bought my wedding dress the week before.
I’d lost everything but at least I could smell cupcakes and glitter…
How very me, right?
So that is how it all went down as I remember it three years later. I didn’t buy a gingerbread house this year. I didn’t have the energy to decide if it was a stupid tradition or not…if it was time to let it go.
Instead I got a new shade of nail polish…called Arson.