Recently I survived a fire in our apartment building that left around 60 people “displaced” according to the fire department. It seems like such an understated word when you realize these people lost everything. They will have to obtain new lodgings temporarily until they can find something permanent and start all over. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, the animals were all safe and those of us who were not directly impacted by the fire were able to return to our apartments after about 5 hours.
When the fire alarm first sounded around 5:50 in the morning, I, like many other tenants just thought it was another false alarm. This happens on a regular basis where I live. I think it is because we have old and faulty water pipes, and it isn’t unusual to see one or two fire trucks show up to apparently turn the water off. I have often joked that if we ever had a real fire, we would all perish because no one would believe it. So, I lay there in my bed thinking of all the activities I had planned for the day. I heard the fire trucks and people screaming, “Get Out, this is really a fire!” I thought they were just “newbies” who did not realize this happens on an ongoing basis. However, when I heard even more sirens, I decided to investigate. As it turns out more than a hundred firefighters from several different counties came to the rescue.
When I looked out the window which is in the front of the building, I saw flames reflected in the windows of the building across the street. I opened the front door onto the breezeway, smelled and saw smoke and knew this was the real thing. I hurriedly dressed, grabbed my cellphone, charger, wallet, water bottle and inhaler. I am asthmatic. I looked at my cats and realized that I could not carry them both down 5 flights of stairs. I also have a broken back. I already knew the elevator would not work. I use a stroller to take them around but there was no way I could carry a stroller down 5 flights. I also have cat carriers, but my very tall grandson had put them up too high for me to reach in a hurry, so I left my precious and frightened babies in the apartment. I closed all the windows and the slider to protect them from the smoke.
My next thought was of my neighbors who like me may not have realized this was the real. I went banging on as many doors as I could then went to my neighbor’s apartment who is more elderly than I and uses a cane or a walker. I literally pulled her out the door and together we began the descent down 5 flights of stairs. We had no idea what to expect. Was this the safest exit or was there another exit that would be better? When we got to the 3rd floor, we could see the firefighters battling the blaze and a section of the building next to us collapsed. We both jumped back and didn’t know what to do. The firefighters were using the stairwell and so we stood there for a few moments trying to figure out another way out of the building. I asked the firemen if we should go back to the other side and he said yes. However, once we got to the other side, we couldn’t figure out how to get down and out the building. Luckily, a woman and her dog came by and she told us to follow her. Once outside, we watched in horror along with others as the fire fighters fought the blaze. Every time we thought they had it under control, it would flare up.
I was terrified that my cats were frightened and in danger. I learned the Red Cross was out in front and could tell me what to do. I went to the parking garage across the street which was set up as a “command center” and saw so many people with their animals including cats that I felt like the worst pet parent in the world. When the fire department gave the first briefing, I raised my hand and in tears said I could not carry both my cats down and what should I do? George, one of the maintenance men and my hero grabbed me and said, “come with me, we will get your cats.” We went back up 5 flights of stairs (did I mention I had a broken back and was asthmatic?) dodging flooding waters, firefighters, and debris until we could get to my apt. He grabbed the cages, I put the frightened little darlings in, and he carried them back down the 5 flights of stairs. When we returned to the “command center” people smiled and gave us the thumbs up.
This was my first fire and I hope my last. I was one of the lucky ones. But I learned a few things I would like to pass on just in case this happens to you in the middle of the night or early morning hours and you are in no immediate danger:
- Keep your cell phone charged in an adjoining room when you sleep and take it with you. Also bring your charger.
- Do not wear flip flops. I grabbed the first pair of shoes which were flip flops and ended up sliding on the pavement from the fire hose water and broke my toe. The Internet suggested slip resistant shoes, sounds good. Just don’t wear flip flops!
- Take your wallet and passport so keep them by your bed.
- If you have other valuables you would want, keep them by your bed, perhaps in a bag or small case.
- Take your water bottle if you have one. The Red Cross did hand out water, but I like having my own.
- Keep some clothing you can throw on in a hurry right by your bed. There were people in their pajamas and robes or just pajamas. Some had no shoes.
- Keep your laptop by your bed and fully charged.
- If you have cats make sure their cages are handy and accessible. If you have dogs keep the leash handy so you can grab it on the way out.
- Understand the elevator is not an option.
- Keep your windows and doors shut when you leave.
- If you feel comfortable leaving your door unlocked so the fire department can get in easily then do so. I didn’t.
If the fire is right outside your building or you are in immediate danger, ignore all this, grab your animals, and get out!
When I was looking up exit instructions on the Internet, they said follow emergency maps. I have never seen anything like that on my floor and it would have been helpful. The only thing we have is a plaque that show stairs. As we learned those stairs weren’t safe and although there were other exits we didn’t know where they were. The fire department did not escort those of us in my building to safety as they were too busy fighting the blaze next door so make sure you know the different routes. Also, if your building has not had any practice fire drills ask them to do so. In the 4 years I have been here we haven’t had a single fire drill unless you include all the false alarms. I also learned that there is a Virginia Landlord Tenant Law that now requires tenants must be provided with an annual written certification that smoke alarms are correctly installed. I have never received such a notice.
Though I don’t live in a home I would strongly urge those who do to have practice fire drills every few months with an escape plan in place. My girlfriend, Melinda, told me she owned two fire escape ladders she can use to exit her house if there is a fire.
You might have a list of all the “dos and don’ts’ by the fridge or by one of the doors. One other thing, I learned from this experience. If you have animals carry a photo with you and not just on your phone. This way you can give a picture to the firefighters on the scene. Also, put something on your door or front window that shows what kind and how many animals you have. One of the tenants, who like me, couldn’t carry her cats down gave her apartment info to a firefighter. He checked, and said her apartment wasn’t in danger but if it were, he would have rescued her cat.
I hope you never have to use these tips. These are mine and there are probably many more on the Internet. Look them up and again if you are in immediate danger just get out!
Because I care . . .
Candace Lighter, Activist and Founder,
We Save Lives
Mothers Against Drunk Driving