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> The Fire
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  Some Thoughts

The Fire

Early in the morning on Friday, October 26, 2007, my apartment building caught fire. I woke to the sounds of people running around, hammering on doors, and yelling “fire!”; a minute later, someone thought to pull the fire alarm. After all the fire drills I'd been through, I knew more or less what to do, so I threw on some clothes, grabbed my wallet, keys, and folder of important documents, and headed for the door. When I opened it and found the hallway filled with dense yellow-brown smoke, I felt sick, and understood for the first time that the fire was real. I was tempted for a moment to go back inside and grab more things, but I knew better, and instead went down the stairs and out of the building.

As I sat there across the street, before dawn, with the moon full in the sky, I watched the firemen work and wondered whether my apartment would burn. It was a classic case of uncertainty … I wanted to control the result, or at least to know the result, but there was nothing I could do but wait. I was also filled with regret for all the other things I should have grabbed, notably my backup disks, which I'd thought of and then forgotten.

For a while I assumed the worst, and tried to come to grips with it, but as time passed it started to look like the worst wasn't going to happen. The fire had started on the other side of the building, and had burned upward and then over through the roof and third floor onto my side, but it wasn't burning downward much, and the firemen seemed to be getting it under control. (My apartment was on the second floor.) When there were just a few little fires visible, I decided I'd seen enough, and, cold and tired, headed across town to my parents' house to sleep. The apartment above mine had burned, but I figured I'd gotten off with just some water damage.

When I came back later that day, though, I found that my balcony door was open (or shattered—I couldn't see clearly with my reading glasses), and that the walls inside looked dark. The door could have been opened by the firemen, as the one next door had been, but the dark walls seemed like a bad sign. And, I wasn't allowed to go in. That was the low point of the whole experience. I went out and bought a few basic clothes—underpants, socks, T-shirts, a couple of sweatshirts, a second pair of pants, and some handkerchiefs—and when I got home, I was pretty sure they were the only things I owned.

That night, I thought about all the things I'd had, about what was and wasn't important, and I decided that if I could have just one thing survive, I'd want it to be my computer. If I'd lost that, I would also have lost several years worth of creative effort. I'd still have had my maze game, since I had put the source code online, and I'd still have had the HTML versions of these essays, but I would have lost the original raw data, the tools, and all my notes. And, all of my other projects would have been completely gone.

The next day, when I went over to the building again, I found that I still wasn't allowed to go in, but that the construction guys were allowed to bring things out. So, I asked if they could bring out my computer, and, wonder of wonders, they could, and did, and it was almost untouched … and when I got it home and cleaned it up, it booted and ran just fine. I also managed to get my car out of the underground garage. That was a nice surprise … I'd assumed the garage had been flooded and the car had been submerged and destroyed, but somehow that hadn't happened; the water had never been more than a few inches deep.

That weekend, I had the one thing I'd wished for, and I was fairly happy.

Two days later, on Monday, I went back again, but still wasn't allowed inside. The building was still unstable; an engineer was scheduled to examine it on Tuesday; if all went well, I was going to be able to get in on Wednesday. The trip wasn't a complete waste, though, because I got the construction guys to bring a few more things out, notably my backup disks and regular shoes. (I'd been going everywhere in Birkenstocks until then.) From the condition of the various objects, I deduced that the kitchen and dining area were seriously messed up, and that the rest of the place had been flooded to a depth of about an inch, covered with a thin layer of soot, and then spattered with bits of wet plaster.

On Tuesday night, I imagined that the next day I'd just go over alone and see whether I could get in, saving most of the actual moving for later, but when Wednesday rolled around, I decided I didn't want to make the trip for nothing, so I called ahead and found out that, yes, it was possible! Then there was no reason to wait … I organized the people who'd volunteered to help (my parents and one very good friend), and an hour and a half later we were all there with a car and a rented moving truck.

The truck turned out to be a waste of time, unfortunately. We could go inside, yes, but only with supervision, and only for a limited amount of time. So, we couldn't empty the place out, but we did manage to grab a carload of goodies, including my journal and almost all of my clothes.

It was good to have a few more things, but what was really excellent was finally getting to see the place and know what state it was in. And, it was about as I'd expected … most of the place had gotten an inch or so of water, which wouldn't have been too bad except for my unfortunate habit of storing things in cardboard boxes on the floor. On the plus side, everything was there, damp but intact and safe. On the minus side, it was still quite a shock to see all the damage … there was a big difference between expecting it and actually seeing it.

What I hadn't expected to see was all the people hard at work removing the wet carpet, which incidentally required moving all my furniture and things around willy-nilly. I think the point was to help stabilize the building, but I'm not sure; at the time I had other things to worry about. Anyway, between that and the fire and water damage, the place didn't feel like my place at all, it felt like a new and different place that happened to have all my stuff scattered around inside.

How was I going to get the rest of my stuff out? Well, I wasn't going to be able to move it myself, but I'd seen some guys from another company emptying out various apartments, so I talked to the guy in charge, and he said he'd get back to me later that afternoon with a quote. Money wasn't much of an issue, so I went home thinking everything was going to be fine.

He did get back to me a few hours later, but only to tell me that they couldn't do it, they were already overcommitted. He also informed me that the building was rapidly getting worse, and that as of Friday, nobody was going to be allowed in. It was incredibly fortunate that he told me, because otherwise I would certainly have procrastinated a bit, but I didn't appreciate that then, because I was out of my mind with panic. This was Wednesday, remember, so if I didn't find someone to move everything the very next day, in fact before 2 PM when the construction guys shut down access, then all the things I'd thought were safe were going to be lost after all.

So, at four in the afternoon I called around and managed to find a moving company that had someone available first thing the next morning. That was good, but I was still worried sick … just a few months earlier my sister had had some movers blow off an appointment, and if that happened to me, I was going to lose the rest of my stuff.

Thursday morning, I got up bright and early and went down to the site so that I could talk to the construction guys and make sure that everything was in order. But, it wasn't. Because the building was getting worse, they'd changed the rules. People from regular old moving companies weren't going to be allowed in any more; only people from special companies with special insurance would do. After an hour or so of phone calls and faxes and discussions, it became clear that the company I'd hired wasn't special; that left about five hours until two o'clock.

Could I find a suitable company, one with movers not already out on a morning assignment, and have them get there in time? I didn't think so. I was just starting to get my head around the maddening idea that I couldn't save my stuff, even though it was sitting right there, unharmed, when, surprise, the construction guys offered to bring as much as they could out onto the lawn and let the movers take it from there. Yay! And that's exactly what happened.

After that, the movers and I unloaded everything into my parents' garage, and I started cleaning things up and getting them back in order. I could tell you all about that, but it's not much of a story … the only uncertainty was how fast mold would grow, and in the unusually warm and dry weather we had, the answer was, not fast enough to do much damage. In the end, I lost almost everything from the kitchen, plus some furniture and larger items, but not too much that was really important. It could easily have been a lot worse.



  See Also

  Monthly Tasks
  Rubik's Cube

@ December (2007)
  February (2010)