It’s been a few weeks now. Weeks and days of the aftermath. The fire.
We have settled into a new routine. A routine of waiting and rearranging ourselves in different places. Fire victims. Displaced, disoriented and dismayed. Waiting to have a home again. Grateful for lives that were not lost, yet grieving for the things that were. Intact, introspective and insightful about yet another experience.
There is much to look back on. It seemed like a normal Friday, that day, the day. October 23rd, 2015. It was a lazy day. I slept late and stayed in my pajamas all day. Relaxing, watching movies and not much else. *Right around 7:30 p.m., I washed some dishes. Little did I know that using the hot water would set off a chain reaction that would ultimately render our home unlivable. Our things unusable. Destroyed or tainted or both.
With the dishes washed, I ate and went to bed. Closing my bedroom door as I always do, little Daisy on my pillow, we settled in for good sleep. So we thought. Around 9 p.m., the smell came seeping through my bedroom door. An acrid smell unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before. Feeling drowsy, I was annoyed that this smell persisted, keeping me from sleep. Arousing myself fully, I got out of bed to investigate the foul, noxious odor.
After opening my bedroom door, I knew something was terribly wrong. The air was wrong. It was thick, so thick I could see it and nothing else. I could taste it and when I breathed it in, it made me cough. Now this wasn’t right. This was so wrong, yet it hadn’t struck me yet exactly how wrong and dangerous it was.
Somehow, I found a phone, finally realizing this new reality, I dialed 911 and bleated out to the operator that my house was on fire. Yes, indeed, my house was on fire. Finding Daisy, I opened the sliding glass door and went outside. I could see smoke bellowing out from the basement. Settling myself in a damp leaf covered deck chair, holding the phone while the 911 operator got help, I waited. During that time, my mind was everywhere. I thought of things inside. My cats. Where were they? I went back in though the smoke and walked back into my bedroom. Grabbing what I thought was most important, my bag of medicine and I think a sweatshirt. Walking back outside, I realized that Daisy had wandered into the house, so back in I went to grab her, then outside into the cold we went and stayed and waited for help.
Sitting there in the cold, damp, leaf covered chair, phone in my hand, 10 minutes had passed since the 911 operated left the line to call the fire departments. I disconnected the call, after hearing sirens, and called my daughter. Three times, no answer. In between the calls, my husband called me and so did my son. We were all on the same page. Our house was on fire. After not being able to call my daughter, I texted her. “My house is in fire”. Just like that. She called back already frightened by the three missed calls from me. I told her what was happening and in a flash they were on their way to me.
The sirens got close and soon, like giant honey bees, they swarmed our property. I was escorted from the cold, damp, leaf covered deck chair to a warm, waiting ambulance. Walking down the driveway to get to the ambulance, I passed fire truck after fire truck, firefighters running around, grabbing hoses, donning equipment necessary to protect themselves. I was horrified and in awe at the same time. I being part of a firefighting family, was only suppose to hear about these scenarios, not be part of them. Fires happen at other people’s homes. Not mine. Not ours.
In the ambulance, I felt safe and cared for. It was a cold night and in my plight, I forgot that I was in a nightgown and not much else. With so much activity all around me, I was encapsulated in a warm ambulance, in the care of two very concerned medical technicians. I refused to go to the hospital. I had not inhaled enough smoke to be sick. My blood pressure was elevated but all things considered, quite appropriate and did not put me in danger of any kind. So I sat and waited.
My daughter and her boyfriend arrived, frantic. They saw that I was okay, Daisy on my lap and were somewhat relieved. The scene around our house was epic and dramatic as any TV show or film about a fire. Having family there was a comfort. Soon, my son arrived and then my husband, both happy that I was safe. I was the only one in the house at the time, except for the animals. Daisy and the cats. I was worried about the cats. Especially a young kitten and his mother, neither of whom I saw get out. I was much more concerned about their welfare than any personal property that being destroyed during those minutes. I kept asking each firefighter I saw if the kitten and its mother were safe. Nobody had an answer. So I continued to worry.
Eventually, the fire was put out. The fire trucks left my driveway, not quite in the hurry in which they arrived. I was escorted back into the house to retrieve something to wear. A fireman with a flashlight and my husband carefully assisted me through the maze that my house had become, into my bedroom, in the dark. Finding a pair of jeans, I put them on. Grabbing into my dresser for whatever my hand touched first. Then I was led through the mess to the kitchen. I grabbed my purse and was assisted back outside. Outside where the air was safe.
The images I saw through that flashlight beam were terrifying. Furniture was all askew, things were on the floor that were not suppose to be on the floor. The house I had just cleaned, dusted and mopped was a disaster. The house I was getting ready for my new grandson to visit was messy beyond anything I could ever clean, dust or mop away. My shabby but comfortable little home had been reduced to a burned, smoky dungeon, habitable by none.
I left in the night with my daughter and her boyfriend and Daisy. They were taking me in and offering me shelter from the mighty storm that swept me out of my home. Still worried about the two cats, we rode in silence. Words interjected here and there, a stop for gas, three people and a dog, adrenalin wearing off leaving us all stunned. Arriving at my daughter’s house, we settled in for night, again. I smelled of smoke and so did Daisy. The clothing I grabbled, my purse too, smelled of smoke. An invisible reminder of the hideous intrusion that brought me to another’s home in the middle of night.
Sleep was elusive. Sirens echoed in my mind. The memory of opening my bedroom door, walking out into the smoke, that thick, acrid and noxious smoke. The birth of a brand new trauma. I labored and finally fell asleep.
The next day, after a very cleansing shower, my daughter and I went over to my house. Walking in the broken front door, the first thing we saw was the kitten. Then we saw her mother and all four of the other cats. My daughter and I hugged and squealed that they were all safe. They were all alive and unharmed. We hugged and held each other and I said that everything would be okay now because the cats were all safe. A happy moment of relief swept over us and made us not mind so much that house was in shambles. In the light of day, we could see what the fire had left behind and it was not pretty or cozy or comfortable. The cats were safe and that’s all we cared about.
I picked through my dresser again and packed an overnight bag. Two pair of jeans, some night gowns and underwear. A few tops, my makeup, hairdryer and flip flops. That was all I needed. That one full overnight bag, would get through the days ahead. All of the other things could wait, I had just what I needed and no more.
Looking around for a few minutes was all I could do. It was simply too much to take in at once. I knew I couldn’t take all of the cats with me to my daughter’s, so I filled up large bowls with food and water for them. Leaving a door open, so they could go in and out. I didn’t fully realize at that time just how much damage to the house had occurred, nor how long it would be before we could call it home again. I didn’t realize at all what would be involved to put all of the pieces back together. How many companies, how many people, how many tasks and how much time were completely unknown. The days ahead would be filled with information and more information until as much as I needed know, was known. It would be springtime before we could sleep in our own beds, in our own rooms, in our own home. Six months of repairs and reconstruction, cleaning and salvaging and throwing out. Six months of being displaced but hopefully not discouraged because where there’s smoke, there may be fire but there is also family, friends and restoration. And for that, I’m in love with life all over again.
November 13, 2015
North Windham, CT
*Footnote: It was determined that our old water heater shorted out and caught on fire. Those dishes I washed at 7:30 pm, started it all.