The smell was like burning plastic. It wasn’t something you mistake. Strong and chemical smelling, I wondered if one of my impulsive sons had thrown one of his Legos into the fireplace without me noticing the night before.
It was 4:30am. My husband had already left for work. He left early some mornings to get a head start before the noise of the day started. My son woke me up complaining of a stomach ache and asked me to sit with him in the bathroom and rub his back. It was then that I noticed the smell. But after consoling my 5 year old son and finally settling him back into bed with me upstairs I forgot about the odor.
It wasn’t 5 minutes later- the hall smoke alarm went off just outside my bedroom door. I jolted up, awoken once more. Reassuring my son again, I got up to quickly find out the problem and a solution so that the smoke alarm wouldn’t wake the rest of my children! But as I turned to go down the stairs I saw quickly that I had a bigger problem. The entire lower level of my home was already filled with smoke. The cloudy toxin was making its way upstairs quickly. An uninvited guest, an intruder in my home.
In disbelief I ran down the stairs to look further. Turning towards the left at the bottom of the staircase I could see just outside our living room onto our attached sunporch, the flames flying high towards the sides of the sunporch and the fire moving inside rapidly. For a split second I actually thought, “Can I do something about that?” And then came another thought immediately behind that one from early grade school somewhere- If your ever in a house and there is a fire, don’t ever stop to think about what to do or what to save. Just get out and get everyone else out quickly. Fire isn’t usually the cause of death for people in house fires, smoke is. Smoke is a quick and even silent killer. And once a fire starts-it moves quicker than anyone expects.
Adrenaline kicked in. I ran into my son’s room, with my T-shirt over my nose to breathe. Jack was only seven years old. Thankfully, he woke easily and hadn’t inhaled too much smoke. I opened the front door of the house and told him to wait here while I go and get his brother and sister. I can not explain the feeling of leaving one child even if for a brief moment during such a situation. The fear in my mother heart was tremendous. I ran as fast as I could, skipping every other stair, first grabbing my three year old daughter in her room and then right back into my room to get my other son who still rested in my bed. Somehow I managed to think to grab my cell phone in my haste. I can still hear their little scared voices asking questions as I pounded down the stairs in the smoke filled haze and me trying to answer back reassuringly as I moved faster than they’d ever seen their momma move before. I carried both of them, one on each hip, as we all four fled barefoot outside and into the cold wind. It was -10 below and snow and ice covered the ground. I didn’t want my children to get frost bite so I carried the two littlest ones. We were all still in our pajama’s as we ran to the neighbor’s house and I managed to call 911 and report the fire while running. Arriving at the neighbors porch I pounded on the front door as hard as I could with my elbows since I was carrying two frightened children in both arms. My oldest son was walking barefoot, without a shirt on and only wearing his pajama pants. He was so cold, he kept saying, “we’re gona die. We’re gona die.” Under his breath. “Jack, we are not going to die.” I said.
We had only lived in our new house for six months. We barely knew our neighbors, least of all wanted to pay them an emergency visit so soon. I was afraid they wouldn’t answer the door. I didn’t even know what time it was. It was still dark. It was still very early. Maybe 5:00am? The door opened a crack. “Help! Our house next door is on fire!” I managed to say. A grey haired woman still in her housecoat who looked to be in her early 70’s opened her door.
“I need blankets for my children, please.” I asked. “I’ve already called the fire department.”
The woman looked stunned and in shock by my words. She shook her head in a yes motion but didn’t say anything. She disappeared down the hall. I managed to get all the kids onto a small sofa that was crowded with magazines and clothes, home care equipment, and health care supplies. I moved the clutter aside and made room for my children in this strange and foreign place. I kneeled down onto the floor wrapping all three children with my arms while they sat on the couch. The only warmth I had to offer their shoeless little feet and shirtless bodies was my own.
“Mom, if our house burns down we won’t have a place to live. We won’t have a home. We’ll be homeless.” My oldest son said with tears in his eyes. The other children began to cry too.
“Oh my dears,” I could tell my voice was shaking from adrenaline and I was trying so very hard to stay strong for them. I prayed for the right words to comfort their little hearts. “We may be without a roof over our heads yes- but I am your home. And you are my home. And that is ALL that matters. That house can burn for all I care! None of it is important. A house isn’t what makes our home a home. We are. As long as we have each other, we are home. But you- you-and you…you are irreplaceable. You are my home and I am yours. We will never be homeless love, Understand?” they seemed too understand, at least enough to quiet down. I could hear the fire trucks coming from outside the window. They sounded only a few minutes away. My neighbor returned with two large blankets and I immediately covered them around the children until they all looked like three little peas in a pod. I thanked her. Introduced myself, and found that her name was Shelda. She apparently likes cats, They were meowing everywhere. “Excuse the mess,” she said “I’ve been organizing things.”
I explained to her that I still needed to call my husband. I phoned Lance next and he answered after the second ring. “Babe, don’t worry- we are all safe- BUT our house is on fire and you need to come home.” I tried to sound calm and reassuring but I was pretty sure I had used up all my extra calm reserve. He showed up in 5 minutes. The kids were so happy to see him. “Daddy! Our house is on fire!” One of them said. As if it were normal for 6 fire trucks to be parked outside. The firemen were so kind. I remember that. They were the real kind of calm. The kind I imagine you always need in a time like that but never know you need it until something devastating happens and it happens to you. These gentlemen felt like angels. They were patient, reassuring, and even asked me about my feet. “My feet?” I asked
“Yes, you said you ran over here to the neighbors and I see your not wearing any shoes.”
“Oh, yes. Well, they hurt. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“You could easily have frostbite, miss. We should have someone look at them from the medic ambulance.”
My husband glanced at me from the other side of the room. “I’m sure she’s fine.” He said. I wasn’t sure but I thought he might be worried they would charge us. In a month we’d get a bill from the county ambulance for $860 just because someone looked at my feet to assess frostbite. “I really think I’m okay.” I agreed.
It took 6 fire trucks that morning: January 6 2013 to put out the flames that engulfed what I had finally come to know as home. The water kept freezing in the hoses because of the cold. Despite the layers and layers of clothing and uniforms the firemen had to take shifts of 15 minutes each and then return to their trucks and let another man go in their place while the previous man warmed up. It took close to 3 hours before the house was declared “clear”. The fire chief came to the neighbors house and told us if there was anything we needed to try to retrieve now would be the time too. Shelda gave me a pair of her sneakers to borrow so I could walk back over to my house. A new face showed up and said he was with our insurance company. He was also kind and walked us through what to do next. He told me to get some clothes for all the children if there was salvageable clothing and he would send it away to be cleaned professionally so they didn’t smell like smoke. I understood. He helped me walk over to my house since the driveways and streets were now covered in ice. Arm in arm I walked with a stranger. When I walked into my once charming home nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was like something out of a movie. The walls of my home were all covered in a thick black film. Some of it was streaking down the wall from the water they had used to put the fire out. I broke into tears. All of my belongings that existed in the back living room nearest to the sunporch were black and charred and most items I couldn’t even make out what they once were. My paintings that hung on the walls were gone. Things were tossed about as if a tornado had come through- a very hot tornado. The insurance man tried to keep me on task while at the same time compassionately listening when I spoke of something that was gone, or how eery the whole house felt, how cold it was now that there was a giant hole in it. The fire had largely taken the back of our 1700 sq ft house. Leaving the upstairs severely smoke damaged. Our basement was in ruins from the water used to put the fire out. It felt surreal. I was freezing. I felt like I needed to stay with the house, like I had let her down in some way. And yet- all I wanted to do was leave and find a refuge. A place to be warm. Craving A certain level of normality. The sun was coming up. My children were beginning to voice their concerns of being hungry. When did I become the grown up? The one everyone looked too for the next thing. The person who they can always count on. It was an honor, but today I felt like a cowardly lion. All I wanted to do was cry out, “Abort! Abort! I’m done! Stop the madness. I don’t know what to do next!”
I slowly picked up the bag of clothes I had thrown into a garbage bag for all of us. Trying to think of everything we’d need. So much harder than you think when your doing it for five people. I found my way back to the neighbors. My husband had heated up the car. I gave the clothes to the insurance man and gave him my contact information. We put the children in the car. We put the car in reverse. The kids were talking, constantly asking questions and asking for things. Now that daylight had come they were worried about their Christmas presents they had most recently been given only days before and wanted my reassurance that it had not gotten destroyed. I had no answers. My husband looked at me. “Where too?” He asked.
We have to feed the kids breakfast. “McDonald’s” I said. And the kids cheered. I stared blankly out the window. I could feel my husband put his hand on my knee. “We’ll get through this.” He said. I didn’t reply. I had no idea how long “this” would actually turn out to be.