Thursday, March 25, 2010

The One Where I Survived...

I promised this story a while back.  The events here are all real; they occurred more than three years ago.

It took me a long time - as you can see - to be able to write coherently about it.  To be honest, I have had this post in my "edit" list since the day after the fire happened.  I wanted to get it all down while it was fresh in my mind.  But I could never finish editing it; I couldn't pull the trigger and post it.  Not for a long time.  Not until now.

I don't know why I can now.  But I realized recently that it's OK now.  That I can talk about this without shaking.  Without the nightmares that used to follow.

And so, without any further ado, I now tell you the tale of The One Where I Survived...

I did it.

I faced one of my greatest fears, and I survived.

I survived.

I ran into a burning building. On purpose. And I walked out of that burning building. You know; flames, toxic smoke, sprinklers going off, fire alarms shrieking...

I survived.

And I will never again be the same.


My elementary school caught on fire when I was in second grade; my classroom was in the wing of the building that was involved . The thick smoke quickly filled the halls and the rooms. The fire bells were ringing inside the school, and the children and teachers were yelling and screaming. In the stampede towards the door, I was run over by some of the bigger kids; I was pinned to the floor by their feet. I couldn't get up - every time I tried, someone stepped on me again. I put my cheek on the cool linoleum floor, sqeezed my eyes shut, and cried for my Mommy and Daddy to come and get me. Suddenly, big yellow boots with black buckles stopped in front of me, and a big fireman who had a shiny yellow coat, and a big yellow hat with the funny slope-y back scooped me up, and carried me out of the building.  He set me down on the asphalt of the parking lot and ran back to the building. I stood there shivering and crying, watching the smoke billow out of our classroom windows.  Not long after it seemed, my Mom came to get me, running to the school with all of the other moms from the neighborhood. We all got to go home early from school that day, and when we went back to school, our classroom was moved to another hall.  I had some spectacular bruises for a couple of weeks, and some spectacular nightmares for a long time.

I had not thought of that day for years and years.


The meeting was dragging a bit, and I had begun to wish I had skipped it; I have plenty to do at home, and this was a volunteer group.  I stretched my arms over my head, feeling cranky. C had stepped out of the room; G was paying rapt attention to the speaker. I was looking around, feeling a tiny bit guilty for not really paying close attention to what was being said, and mostly wondering what I was going to have for lunch.

The fire alarm jolted everyone in the room. The meeting instantly stopped. Everyone was very calm; almost preternaturally so. This time, there was no screaming, no hysteria; we quickly and quietly made our way to the only exit not obviously blocked by smoke and flames. Myself, C and G brought up the rear; we were urging the others towards the door, and closing doors as we went down the hallway, hoping to minimize the damage to the rest of the building. I remember thinking how odd it was that I couldn't hear the fire trucks, because the fire alarm inside the building was so deafening. The strobe lights perched on top of each alarm in the building were blinking incessantly; it was like the flash of a million cameras all firing at once. It was terrible - the noise and flashing lights made it nearly impossible to think clearly. Not to mention the adrenaline that was pumping through my veins furiously.

We were almost to the exit. I could see blue sky through the door, then I was OUT the door, and I knew everything was going to be OK. I sucked in a lungful of clean air. Then G turned, and ran back inside, towards the front, back towards the fire. I instinctively turned to shout after her, and she was gone, gone around the corner. C screamed, and ran after G.


I ran back in.  I ran back into a burning building.  On purpose.

I tried to stuff the panic down; I could still see inside; the smoke was just beginning to creep along the ceiling down the long main hallway, sending deadly little grayish-white tendrils out like thick, smoky, tentative fingers.  You could smell smoke, but the air looked clear.  The lights were still on in the building; in fact the electricity never went out until later, when the Fire Department found the mains and shut it off manually. The sprinkler system in the area of the fire was working - water was beginning to run through the hallways - but the flames and smoke were still blocking the front doors. One part of my brain was wondering why the fire was still going when there were sprinklers.

The other part of my brain was trying to make sense of why G ran back. Why, when we were so close to safety, did she turn and...

...then I saw them. Two teenage visitors; they were there for the day, and they simply did not know what to do. The teenage girl screamed over the noise of the alarm that she couldn't find her cellphone; she was gesturing wildly with her hands and crying, trying to go back. The boy was trying to drag her by the arm, towards the emergency exit at the back, and away from the fire. C pointed them towards me and gave them a little shove; I waved them over, and then took them by the arm to the back door. I saw them safely out through the back door, told them to run around to the front parking lot, and turned to find C and G both conspicuously absent.


So, I went back in.  Again.

I walked - no ran - back into a burning building. Not once, but twice.  I was going to find G, and C. To drag them out by the hair if I had to. Because I had *seen* the damned exit - not once, but twice, and I was by God going to see it again. Hell, I was going to go OUT of it, and escape, and take them with me. But first I had to find my friends.

I rounded the corner, started down the main hallway and stopped in the middle of the hall, between two doors. C and G had run back in - first to find the teens, and then C decided that she should try to "save" some of the papers from our meeting. I yelled at her that the paperwork could be replaced, but she couldn't. Finally, she nodded, and grabbing one last armload of files, started towards where I was standing in the hall. I turned to look for G; the incessant beat of the alarm and the rhythmic flashing of the strobes were really beginning to bother me. I needed to get out of there; I was shaking from the adrenaline, and I was dizzy and nauseated.  The air was starting to feel thick, and the smoke had begun to drop from the ceiling, now black and menacing. I notice that one of the doors we had closed was open a crack, it was here that I found G; she was trying to drag furniture away from the walls in the room next door to the room that is on fire. C and I yelled at her that it was time to leave - NOW. She turned to look at the doorway, and at that moment, the flames broke through a glass window wall across the room. C and G were both instantly transfixed, staring at the scene. The fire roared just 20 or so feet away from us. The smoke swirled gray and black around the ceiling and floor like angry clouds, and the air was beginning to feel weird in my mouth and nose. You could smell plastic and carpet burning and the front windows had begun to shatter, one after another, from the heat of the fire. I looked from one to the other - it was as if they were hypnotized by the rolling smoke and the flames.  They just stood there.

I couldn't wait any longer.  I ran between them, grabbed their arms, and yelled "GO! NOW!" over the noise of the alarms, and whipped them both around. I pushed them back down the hallway, towards the back, towards safety. C was still clutching a stack of paperwork, trying to tell me that she didn't get everything she needed. G had her sunglasses in her hand, and was digging in her purse, yelling over the racket that she couldn't find her cellphone. I just kept pushing them towards the exit, urging them to hurry. I remember thinking I should find my sunglasses and cellphone, too. But not now. Later. I knew that the suspended ceiling above us had the potential to hide the fire; even now it could be above us, racing ahead of us, ready to stop us from getting out that door.

It seemed like it took forever to get them to the back door. It was probably less than 20 seconds.

Once we were out, G ran as fast as she could to the front of the building, to move her car away from the fire. C and I walked more slowly, still amazed at what we just experienced; we both knew there would be even more excitement at the front of the building, and we were in no hurry to meet it.

As we rounded the side, and came into the main parking lot, the Fire Department arrived. I grabbed my cell, and called The Wrench to tell him that I was OK. The local media was already there, shooting pictures and video. I grabbed a few frames with the camera from the cellphone, and then I moved off to the side. A little further away from the action, from the fire, the smoke, the broken glass, and the reporters. The owner of the building arrived, wringing his hands, worried about the water damage that the fire department was creating. G managed to slip into her car and get it moved away from fire, although she did get a "talking to" from the fire captain after she had it parked again.

I slid the back door of the mini-van open, and sat down gratefully. I could smell the smoke in my clothes and hair; I was shaking hard all over. The firemen had everything under control in just a few minutes; it took them longer to find the shut-offs for the utilities than it did for them to actually put the fire out.

C and G joined me. We watched as the fire department dumped stacks of melted office chairs out into the parking lot. We watched them carry C's desk out onto the sidewalk; we saw them turn on the big fans that helped get the smoke out. 

After a while, they let three of us go back in the building to retrieve personal items, although we were not allowed to walk in the actual area of the fire. I looked at where we were standing when the fire broke through, and began to shiver. I looked up at the ceiling where the firefighters had pushed aside the suspended ceiling, and saw the path the fire had taken above the suspended tiles.

It had been headed for the back door. Just like we were.

I went straight home. I got in bed, pulled the covers up, and shook. For the next four hours.


What did I learn? Once I stopped shaking, I realized several things:

First, it is foolhardy to run into a burning building. Firefighters are trained to do that; everyone else should get out, and stay out. And also, we don't pay our firefighters NEARLY enough money. And that no matter how prepared you think you are, all those fire drills in elementary school don't prepare you for the real thing.

Next, I learned that you really should always know where the exits are.  Always have a way out; always have a plan.  Know how you'll get out if you have to.

Finally, I learned that I cannot just walk away. Not when I can help someone.

I feel stronger. I feel a greater appreciation for everything in my life. I feel as though there is (almost) nothing I can't do.

But most importantly, I learned that I can survive. I faced one of my biggest fears ever, and I survived.


"Daughter" said...

Wow. And wow again. What an experience to live through- twice.

Thank you for sharing it.

Chuck said...

I remember my last experience with fire...dumpster fire here at my apartment...and I was all like, "OH MY GOD THERE'S A FIRE!" and the firemen were all oh yeah, there's a fire. Hang on a sec. (Of course, that was probably a nice little training lesson for them, but they were super professional putting it out.) They just recently replaced the dumpster.

Glad you and your co-workers made it out safely! Sounds VERY scary.

Ericka said...

scary stuff.

it's amazing what can go through people's heads isn't it? not GET OUT, but, hmm, need cell phone, papers, sunglasses... it's like some of us just shut the big scary thing away to deal with later.

thanks for sharing!

Suldog said...

Great story, Thim. I know I told you this a while back, in regard to something else, but it still holds true: You are a very strong person. Good job on rescuing your friends and on facing your fears.

The Whippy Curly Tails said...

Wow ... Unreal!

Catmoves said...

Congratulations on facing your greatest fear, not once, but twice. And beating it.
Fire is one thing mankind has always been afraid of. Thanks for showing us it cam be defeated.

Ericka said...

hey, haven't seen hide nor hair of you lately. still surviving??