Trial by Fire
Saturday, March 16th was my birthday. I drove all day to get to Chicago and see my friends, say goodbye and collect Dean. Sunday, March 17th, we got up at 6am and began packing up and cleaning the condo. Monday, March 18th, I went to work, we received messages that the condo closed, Dean spent the day getting unpacked. That night was our first night together in our new place. We stayed up too late unpacking, hanging pictures, playing with Jake and generally enjoying each other’s company.
Tuesday morning we slept in. I didn’t have to be at work until late, Dean had a job interview at 11am. I got up and went for a run, when I came back, Dean told me that the water was off and he couldn’t shower. We were a little annoyed because we hadn’t received notice. Apparently they were working on the building, replacing the plumbing. We thought they would be done the previous week. Dean got dressed and went to his job interview without showering (he still looked nice) and I made some phone calls, paid some bills, finally changed into work clothes without showering because I was getting cold. I figured I could always go into work a little early and shower before I clocked in if the water was still not on. I sat down with a pack of KIND granola and decided to do some studying for my certification while I had a little breakfast.
An ear-splitting siren went off the instant I sat down, Jake bolted upstairs. “Wow,” I thought, “is that the fire detector? I know we burnt some popcorn last night, but why is it going off now? This is just going to be one of those irritating days, I guess.” I hit the test button on the fire detector and it went off. An almost quiet beep compared to what was happening. I then saw the big red box above our door. I couldn’t smell smoke. I didn’t know why it was going off. I started to head upstairs to see if there was a smokey smell up there when I heard pounding on my front door. Back down the stairs.
By the time I opened my door I saw my building manager running to the next unit and banging on their door. She looked back over he shoulder at me, “I need y’all out of here, there’s a fire in this building!” “I have to get my cat!” I said. “Okay,” she yelled as she kept running.
I had no shoes on. I ran upstairs where Jake was hiding under the bed, grabbed a pair of socks and put them on. Grabbed Jake and ran downstairs. My cowboy boots were by the door, I pulled them on, grabbed my keys and went outside, locking the door behind me.
Several residents were outside. It was 10:45am on a Tuesday, so mostly women and children, (spring break) and occasionally someone with an odd schedule like mine. Jake was struggling. I carried him over to the other side of the parking lot and crouched down on the grass. I saw the smoke coming out of the other side of the building. Then I saw the first fire truck pull up. Jake began thrashing and I was having a hard time holding him. I carried him further up the hill and pulled out my phone, which I had in my pocket from making those phone calls. 11% battery. Great. While trying to hang on to Jake I managed to compose an email through voice text into the building managers at work and my supervisor in Chicago letting them know that my building was on fire and I might be late to work. I still didn’t comprehend how bad it was. I sent a voice text to Dean’s family thread and one to my mom. Then I concentrated on containing Jake. During that time five more fire trucks pulled up and the smoke began to get thicker.
When I saw the flames start coming out over the roof was when it hit me that we could actually lose everything right when we had moved here. I started crying and called my mom. I don’t remember what all I said. I remember them asking if I could go sit with Jake in the car, but Dean had the car at his interview. My phone battery was down to 7% and I believe I hung up to conserve battery.
Jake was getting more and more difficult to control and I began walking down to the building office, thinking at least I could contain him there. I couldn’t stop crying. My building manager saw me and asked if there was anything she could do, I shook my head. She asked if I wanted to sit in the office. I nodded. We went into the office and she gave me a bottle of water and said how sorry she was and asked if there was anything I needed, did I want her jacket, anything? I asked for a phone charger.
Shortly after she gave me her phone charger, a young man came in with a cat carrier. He had seen me and said he rarely used it and I could put Jake in it if I liked. He also had a tupperware container of cat food and a toy mouse. I thanked him profusely. After he left I realized I had not gotten his name or what unit he was in. (He did come back later in the day to check and said no pressure on returning the carrier and wrote down his unit number. His name was Graham.)
Over the next few hours, I met my neighbors for the first time in the worst possible way. I met a woman name Shana, who’s twelve year old son was visiting for his spring break. She had also moved from Chicago recently, in December. Her unit was the one the plumbing work had started in. She had also been surprised that they were doing work that day and had taken her son to get a pancake breakfast. They had just sat down when she got the call to come back immediately. The fire had started in her unit. The speculation was due to soldering pipe.
Another neighbor, Tammy, had rescued Shana’s dog, Chelsea. Tammy had not been able to rescue all of her cats. Her unit was next to Shana’s and they had not officially met until that day, but Shana was grateful that Tammy had gone into her house to get the dog.
An elderly man named Mac was in a walker. This was his second apartment fire. He told us about going through the first one. It didn’t help really. But it was a good story. He talked about escaping over the balcony because when he opened his door there was a wall of flame. (He had shut it again quickly, and then opened it again to make sure it was real.) I wondered if he had been in the walker when he climbed over the balcony.
At some point I contacted work to let them know that I wouldn’t be able to come in. At some point Dean’s mom called, but there was much confusion and I couldn’t talk long. At some point I talked to my parents again, but I didn’t have new information. I shared the charging cord with Mac.
There was a Somalian family in tears and confused. They didn’t speak English. No one spoke Somalian.
Dean got there after an hour. He had to park the car blocks away in an office parking lot because the roads were blocked off by emergency vehicles. By the time he got there, the fire was under control. It took about an hour.
News crews started to arrive and came in to see if anyone wanted to be interviewed. No one fucking felt like being interviewed. Dean finally did it to get them off of everyone’s case. He gave two interviews that day. I’ll link them later if I can find them. (Our property manager’s … boss? supervisor? was in Wednesday to help and told him he had done a good job and thanked him.) Incidentally, people kept coming in and asking Dean if he was the property manager because he was wearing a suit and tie due to his interview.
They ordered pizza for everyone. Even a veggie one for me.
Red Cross came to help. I’m sure there was some organization happening, but it was very confusing to me. They asked if we had insurance, we said yes, they told us to call our insurance and see if they would put us up. Property management printed out our insurance policy and all of our ID copies that they had on file. (My wallet was still in my unit.)
Dean called the adjuster and they had him install an app on his phone that allowed them to use his camera. They had him walk around and get photos and video of the damage. They said they probably would not be able to get us a hotel room, but we should just save all receipts from anything we spent and we would eventually be reimbursed. Because we had insurance, Red Cross didn’t get us a room. They did give us a prepaid MasterCard with $250 on it for expenses and cautioned us that it was not to be used for alcohol, tobacco or firearms. I mean. Yeah, okay. We used it to buy supplies for Jake at the dollar store and a set of clothes for each of us at Target. We also filled up the gas tank.
Because Dean had medication that he needed, we were able to run into the apartment under supervision of a fireman. I was able to grab a phone charger, a pair of shoes that were not cowboy boots, a backpack and my bike pannier that were near the door and whatever they had inside them (my wallet, thankfully) and my laptop for work that I had been about to study for my cert on. Sadly I had not been able to get the charger. After that the unit was boarded up (the firemen had kicked in the door that I had locked by habit and so they had to board it for safety reasons.)
It was difficult getting a pet friendly hotel, but we managed it. The next day we drove Jake halfway to my parents’ home in Montgomery where they met us and took him. It’s easier to find a place to stay without him and he knows their house. It’s better for him to be somewhere he’s familiar without all of this upheaval.
I’m back at work and we’re trying to work through things. We should be able to get into our unit on Friday and we’re hoping to get some clothes and bring them to my parents’ house to wash. We’re not sure what else.
This has been heartbreaking and very difficult, but there are good things that have come out of it. The people who had reached out to us in support has brought tears to my eyes every time. I have been overwhelmed and unable to contact every individual, but we will get back to everyone. I will thank Elyse for coming over to the hotel that first night when we still smelled like a campfire and allowed us to think of something else for a couple of hours. Patti for giving us a place to sleep last night and cooking us a healthy meal (my God, that was needed.)
I will update more later. There will be more good coming. And more hardship. But we’re still together and the support we’ve received from some of you has been amazing. Thank you.