A Year Ago, There Had Been a Fire, and I Was Living in a Hotel

April 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

There hasn’t been *KNOCKS VIGOROUSLY ON WOOD* a single false alarm since we were cleared to move back home.

Note: Thanks to AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, poor Shelterpop will probably soon disappear, and my writing, at least about this incident, will probably be gone forever, so I’m publishing it again here for safekeeping. It’s been exactly one year today since it originally published

In hindsight, as always, there were signs.

When my husband Scott and I (and our two cats) moved into our 8th floor condo while renovations were being finished in August 2006, there were frequent power outages and fire alarms. The building was designed with a zone alarm, meaning that when triggered, the warning (which blared, “May I have your attention please: A fire has been reported in the building. Please evacuate using the nearest stairwell immediately” in a way that was equally annoying and terrifying) would air in all hallways and stairwells as well as every unit on the floor of the fire and its surrounding floors.

As soon as we figured that detail out, we designed a system: Whenever we’d hear the alarm, we’d corral the cats into their carriers, then split up — one person would stay put in our place while the other walked down to the lobby to chat with the security guard to determine whether or not it was a false alarm. It could all be somewhat relaxed, because if the warning was just playing in the hallways, we knew the “fire” wasn’t near us. We even had emergency text-message shorthand. If the warning suddenly began piping into our unit, the code word for “I’m-taking-the-cats-and-leaving,-meet-me-at-our-cars” was simply “pancakes.”

We rehearsed this routine at least 15 times over the past 3 years. It was always a false alarm.

That is, until around 1:30 a.m. on March 25th.

My husband woke up first: The power was out. The alarm was going off in the hallways, so we (very groggily, and very slowly) hustled up the cats. He volunteered to go to the lobby and I gladly stayed behind after reminding him about “pancakes”. He wasn’t gone for three minutes when the warning began piping into our unit. This was different, I realized.

I sent him a sloppy, misspelled message (“panckaes”) and hustled down the stairs, and out to our parking lot.

Once Scott joined me, he shared a worrying detail: Before getting my message, he’d tried to come up the stairwell of the south wing (we live in the east wing) and was stopped by heavy smoke. He’d been in the process of texting me “GET OUT” when he got my message.

We knew then: This time was different. This was serious.

I also knew, above all else, that I’d grabbed what was important. The entire building could’ve gone up in flames. I had no documents, no wallet, no credit cards, no photos, no wedding album, no clothes other than the ones I was wearing — but I did have Scott, and the cats, and my life. Everything else could be replaced. On some level, that realization made me relax and made the next few hours a little more bearable.

We spent the next few hours taking laps around the building. We watched fire trucks pull up — all told, there were eight in front of our building and another 11 at the high school down the road. The fire trucks waited, just in case, and soon ambulances and even the Red Cross arrived. We popped into the building lobby to talk to other residents and picked up other details: Electrical fire, south wing, sprinklers deployed, damage to units, not sure we’ll be allowed back in tonight. We wondered aloud what to do and always decided: Wait.

At one point, probably unwisely, we snuck up a stairwell in our wing — we knew the fire was contained at that point — and retrieved kitty litter and cat food. We let our cats roam around in his car and we took cat naps. We were worried and clueless about what would happen next.

The cats waited patiently too. Photo: Meredith Rodkey

Finally, around 5:30 a.m., a fireman told us we’d been cleared to go back inside.

There was no power. We went straight to bed and slept fitfully. The next morning, there was still no power. “Let’s just see if the elevators are working,” I said to Scott, “There’s power in the hallways, so maybe they are.” The elevators were working and hung on them was a sign. It read:

POWER OUTAGE: Due to last night’s fire, residents on floors 1-6 will be without power until Tuesday. Residents on floors 6-12 should plan to be without power for at least 14 days.

I gasped. I’ve always been the type of person to have visceral reactions, I can’t hide anything. I audibly, in shock, gasped in an honest way I’d never done before.

And that was just the beginning. Within a few hours, our building would be declared uninhabitable by the county, which meant we couldn’t live there at all. Within a day after that, we were told that we’d be displaced for at least 30 days. So, for now, we’re out of our home and living in a local hotel. Just me, my husband and our two dear cats.

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