`It is 3:30 AM and I am standing on the sidewalk in front of my home. It is just 18 degrees outside but I am very warm. The house next door is fully engulfed in flames. That house in only about nine feet from my house.
I am vaguely aware of my neighbors gathering near me on the sidewalk. They are all there. “R” asks me if I want to use his cell phone to call Michelle who is stuck in Atlanta because of the unexpected snow. I take him up on the offer. She does not answer. Some of the others ask if I want to come inside from the cold. I wave them off. My feet are getting cold but I barely move from my spot on the sidewalk. I don’t really believe it but stand there as if my staring at the fire will keep it on the other side of the property line.
I am not sure how long I have been standing here. I awoke to a police officer banging on my door. The room as I awaken is a weird orange color. I look out one window and see nothing, but a glance out the other window shows the house there fully ablaze. I run to the door where the officer yells, “There is a fire get your stuff and get out.” I run back to my room and begin to get dressed. I am fully aware that people die of smoke inhalation when they stop to get dressed before leaving a burning room but I dare not go out into the hard cold night in pajamas. I pull on my jeans and a warm shirt, tie my sneakers and run from the room. The officer is back and he is screaming, “Get out now, now, NOW!” I grab my warm coat from the chair where I left it when I last came in from the snow and I am out the door. Is MY house on fire?
I take my spot across the street. There are flames from every window of the building next door. It is burning really hot. I look at my small house next to the flames as they light up the night sky. There is no way my house will not burn. I don’t have my wallet, keys, cellphone, nothing. There are two firefighters on my front lawn with a single hose. They are doing what they can to keep the flames away from my house. There is no way my house will not burn.
The house that is downhill from the burning building is now ablaze. I am told that the residents have gotten out. They called in the fire when it woke them up. I dimly remember that they were on the porch of the house across the street from their home watching the flames eat through their roof. Their shingles are older than my shingles. Will mine hold the fire back or will my roof catch next? I am also aware that the woman who was the last resident living in the building next door is not on the sidewalk. I pray that she is safe even though I know that if she is not…..
The hose that is saving my house goes dead. No more water. The firefighters back away from the blaze. I am sure my house is doomed. I think of all the things that are inside. They are only things but they are “my” things. They are the evidence that I have lived, loved, had children and accomplished some things. It will soon all be gone. The flames edge closer but suddenly the water cannon on the fire engine comes alive and there is water sprayed on my home. It is safe for a few minutes more.
Another fire engine arrives, with a “cherry picker bucket” on the back. It moves into place behind the first engine. The street is filled with water that has frozen into a sheet of ice. The firefighters have a hard time walking in the street.
There is a large pine tree that reaches out over the burning building and over my roof. If the tree catches my roof will probably burn. The flames are right under it now and it is starting to smoke. My home, I am sure, will be destroyed. Just as the tree starts to catch fire a second water cannon, mounted on the bucket has been raised into place and it is turned on the tree. The tree does not catch fire; my home is saved for a second time.
I am so glad that Michelle is not here to see this. I picture her in my mind sitting on the sidewalk and crying. I feel like sitting and crying myself. My neighbor from down the street, an Episcopal priest offers me a cup of hot tea. I begin to realize how cold I am. He asks if I want to warm up inside his home. I still will not move from my place. I call Michelle again and this time she answers. I fill her in on what is going on. I know she feels helpless being so far away but I tell her I am glad she is not here. It is very frightening and I am really afraid.
The two water cannons beat back the flames. We now see a bright ball of fire rising in the middle of the building. The gas line has broken and natural gas is now feeding the blaze. From above the canon tries to put out the blaze. Finally they turn from saving my house to putting out the fallen parts of the building next door. I can see from my vantage point, however that the fire is spreading from the back of the building toward my house again. The firefighters can’t see it from my front yard. I want to yell to them, to run across the street to point it out to them but they are following the orders of the captain who is standing where he can’t see what is happening in the back. For a third time I believe that my house will be lost.
Water appears from nowhere against the flames. A third fire engine has taken its place in the alley behind my home and we have a three alarm fire. The fire is beaten back and for a third time my house is saved.
My feet are now painfully cold. The priest tells me he is going home. I take him up on his offer of a warm place to sit. His home is warm and pleasant. His son has taken some video from his phone and sent it to one of the early morning local news programs. They just showed it on air. There are news crews arriving to cover the fire. They seem to be set up in the back because the fire department has closed most of the roads. The ice on my street downhill from me is very slippery. They can’t get another truck up the street.
Some men in different uniforms start to dig a hole in the yard in front of the burning building. They are from the gas company. The shutoff valve for the building is in the basement and nobody can go there to shut the gas off. The men shut the gas off where it branches off the main line. Finally the fire begins to go out. My home is safe. I return to the street. The cannons are shut off and the hoses are used to put out hot spots. The sky is getting lighter. The news crews reset themselves on my street. They ask me if I would speak on camera. I do, knowing that the early risers in my congregation will see me on the news. At least they will know I am safe. (Actually, a congregant will only see a fraction of the interview and post of Facebook that I “lost everything” in the fire. In a short time my friend, the synagogue Executive Director will call, get the whole story and then put the rumors down)
As the dawn breaks and we can see better, I am finally allowed to go into my house. I grab my wallet, keys and phone and leave again. I can now sit in my car and be warm. I turn it around so I can face the fire and wait. An hour later the fire is out. The building next door is all but gone, just two stone chimneys standing in the rubble. The house downhill has lost its roof and the back half of the house. I am sure it is total loss. A fireman grabs a ladder and climbs up to the window in the upstairs unit where my neighbor, the only tenant in the building lived. She has died in the fire. The police come to investigate; screens are put up to protect the site from sight seers. I start to take pictures of the damage to my house but the police think I am looking for a picture to send to the tabloids and demand I stop. I tell them I am only taking pictures of my home but I don’t want to make them angry. I put the camera away.
Six of my windows are broken. The blinds melted in the heat. Most of the water damage is minor, a few puddles on my floor to wipe up with a towel. The firefighters are really amazed that there is no more damage. I am so grateful that I shake everyone’s hand for the extraordinary job they did to save my home. They have sent for someone to come and board up my windows so the cold will not enter my house. I reenter the house say a prayer of thanks and find the number to call my insurance agent.
The firefighters of the Highland Fire Station, together with God saved my house. My phone starts to ring with friends worried about my safety. I finally daven Shacharit at home, pausing to add a few psalms of Hallel that seem to reflect the gratitude in my heart. My insurance agent sends someone from a restoration company to help dry me out. He is amazed that there is so little for him to do. There is no smoke damage, no smell, almost no water damage. He just can’t believe it. I don’t believe it myself.
I call my children and the “moms” to tell them I am OK.
Michelle arrives back home just as the last of the fire engines pulls away.
A large backhoe arrives to knock down the stone chimneys so they will not blow over in a storm (and wreck my house if they did.)
On Friday night, we have a dinner at the synagogue. Michelle lights electric candles for Shabbat. She feels funny lighting candles and not being home to make sure everything is alright.
Hodu LH’ Ki Tov – Ki L’olam Chasdo – Praise to God for God is good – God’s kindness is eternal.