WELL. This was a blog post I never saw coming.
At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 30, I was feeding Benji his oatmeal and preparing to start his bedtime routine.
Mat was studying in the the living room/office. We were working out how the bedtime routine would go, if Mat would have time to give Benji his bath or if I would do it. These little everyday things that are so banal until interrupted by traumatic events.
Before we ever made it to bath time, there were panicked voices in the stairwell of our building; it sounded like people fighting, or drunkenly yelling, which was not a totally uncommon occurence with the neighbors who live in the basement apartments, one floor down from us. The voices elevated enough to where it disturbed Mat even with his study-time headphones on. When he opened the door to the stairwell, there was the distinctive smell of smoke.
Living in apartments (or dorms) for the past nearly 15 years, the smell of smoke or the sound of a fire alarm has a desensitizing effect. Once you’ve had to evacuate because someone burned popcorn and the fire department gets automatically dispatched, you learn that not all alarm-sounding events are created equal. So our initial reaction was to roll our eyes in irritation.
But when Mat went down to see, the picture changed completely. The neighbors yelling were actually panicking because the smoke was coming from the unit across the hall from them and no one from inside was answering the door. They called 911 and the landlord, who lives on the top floor of the building, was frantically trying to break into the apartment.
Mat came back into ours and when I heard “fire downstairs” MOM-MOBILIZATION MODE went full power ON. I grabbed the baby from his highchair, bib still on and a face smeared with oatmeal, myself wearing just sweater and slippers, and JETTED OUT THE FRONT DOOR. Mat didn’t even see me go. He’d gone back into the living room to gather important things, trying to have a bit of forethought, whereas I had zero else on my mind except the worst case scenario which was: IT’S GONNA BLOW.
(I like to think that if I didn’t have a child, I would have been more clear-headed and at least thought to grab a coat, or shoes, or my phone. But, who knows?)
Thank goodness for Mat, who realized I was standing outside with not much on in the way of autumn-wear in late October, and brought coats and shoes, the stroller, and warm clothes for the baby. He also brought our laptops and his expensive textbooks. Smart dude.
The rest of the evening was something of a blur. After the firefighters arrived and it was clear everyone was unharmed, it was a waiting game. We never saw flames from the outside, just an impressive amount of smoke billowing from the roof of the 4-story building. They dispatched 5 trucks and more than 40 firefighters because of the age of the building and its capacity to burn.
After a few hours of watching and waiting with very little news, it became clear we wouldn’t be returning to our own beds that night; it just wasn’t certain WHERE we would be sleeping. Talk of Red Cross aid began circulating, and in the meantime, Mat took Benji and me to a friend’s place nearby to let the baby sleep while he returned to the scene for news and short-term arrangements.
After the building was secured, Mat and other neighbors were allowed in the building, one at a time accompanied by a firefighter, to retrieve some personal items and clothing. The fact that they allowed for this was a good sign that the building wasn’t charred and contaminated beyond minor reparation. Our apartment was one of the least affected, we were told, having only suffered minor smoke contamination. That is to say, we didn’t lose anything to flames and it will all be cleaned and decontaminated, which is really a huge upside of this whole ordeal. In fact, the flames barely left the source apartment save for the unit just above it, which has bad floor damage in the area over where the fire broke out.
That night we stayed in a nice downtown hotel not too far from our place, paid for by the Red Cross. They put us up for three nights and gave us vouchers for clothes from Walmart and food at a buffet restaurant! The food vouchers didn’t tempt us too much, but we did take advantage of the clothing voucher for Benji - we were less inclined to risk the smoky toxic clothing on him than ourselves, and we wouldn’t be able to do laundry until several days later. (And once we did, the smoky smell came out completely!)
Suffering no long-term damage, our biggest horror was/is this stressful period of displacement, that truly couldn’t have come at a worse time. Not to say that there’s ever a GREAT time for a fire to break out in your building, but these last weeks Mat has been at his limit in schoolwork already. Adding this has really mounted the stress-levels. After the first three nights, we had to find a place slightly bigger for at least a week to give us some breathing room to sort of where we would live temporarily. So we moved to some hotel “suites” across town, which came with its own set of added inconveniences, namely that it was really far out of the way. Mat needed the car to go to school which left Benji and me stuck in the hotel. Not so fun!
Finally we found a place that seemed like a good deal - furnished, cozy - but also far from campus, tucked away in a residential area without many services within walkable distance. Also, it’s a basement! When we first visited, boy, did it look good compared to the small suite we were crammed into!! So we took it, not really thinking about how the lack of natural light in these gray winter months wouldn’t be so ideal. After a few days, I couldn’t imagine us living here indefinitely, and so we started the search anew. But this time, in a less-pressure situation since we have the place for a month and not just a week.
The whole situation is further complicated by the frustrating fact that we don’t yet know WHEN we’ll be able to get back into our apartment, and if it’s worth the wait. We’re hearing talk of 3-6 months, but the construction world has a pretty bad reputation for taking way longer than originally projected. Three months doesn’t seem too bad. But SIX months?? That’s half a year to be waiting around in a short-term lodging while our furniture and household belongings are tucked away in storage. Half a year of not being able to be AT HOME.
Sure, we’re in well-equipped furnished places, but we are without our things, our set-up specifically designed to support our life and needs. The baby’s bed (familiarity is a huge necessity for babies), a changing table that is secured to keep baby safe and the right height for us adults and our backs! Mat’s desk space that we created especially for him to be able to seriously study while coexisting with a baby.
Can we live without these things? Sure. But not indefinitely. At some point we’d like to reestablish stability in our lives, especially for the baby’s sake, and not knowing when we’ll be able to do so is extremely challenging.
At the very least, our insurance is covering the difference in rent we’re paying at these furnished places that cost more than our own apartment. We’re also covered for the cleaning of our things and one round-trip move. That is to say, they will pack our things up for us and move it out of our apartment, clean it, store it, and move it only once more somewhere else. So we can’t have them move it to a temporary place and then BACK to our original apartment, unless we want to pay for the third time ourselves. (Which we don’t.)
Legally, we aren’t obligated to stay with the lease. We can move permanently at any time. The problem with that, however, is that our apartment is really a rare find in town, and it isn’t the best season to search for apartments - in the middle of the school term and the early winter weather. That’s not to say we couldn’t find something, but the odds just aren’t in our favor.
Your big question, though, is: WHAT CAUSED THE FIRE??
We still don’t know for sure (or at least it hasn’t been made known to us), but we know it started in the kitchen of the basement apartment, most likely on the stove. The tenants living there are an older woman and her adult son, who is on the autism spectrum. The woman wasn’t home at the time, but the son, who works nightshifts, was home sleeping. When the neighbors across the hall from him (that is to say, the neighbors just underneath us), smelled the smoke and tried to knock on the door, it took a long time for him to respond, and it had presumably been quite awhile that he’d been sleeping as the fire grew. Initially when the landlord tried to get him to open the door, he appeared to resist and wouldn’t let him in, possibly having something to do with his disorder. Finally, the landlord and a few neighbors broke the window to the guy’s bedroom and he escaped from there and was later taken to the hospital to check for smoke inhalation. (He was fine.)
A few days later, when we returned to do a visit with our insurance claims handler, we took a quick tour of the damaged unit. Positively apocalyptic! The walls were completely black, with creepy drip marks where the smoke had stuck to the walls. The kitchen was beyond recognition - the appliances had totally melted. It really made us realize how lucky it was it didn’t spread.
Mat took a few photos, but with the lack of light (the electrical wiring was either destroyed or cut by the firefighters) you don’t see much… but the gist of it!
All in all, it could have been much worse, and we are grateful it wasn’t. Another disappointing side-effect is that I won’t get to spend the rest of my maternity leave in this home that we worked so hard to create! (We always put a little too much work into our rentals but, until now, we haven’t been bitten in the butt for it). Ughhhh and it was JUST coming together, FINALLY. I was almost ready to post photos!
Ah, but it’s cool - Benji and I are escaping to New Mexico for a few weeks to enjoy some sunshine and turkey. And Mat will get some time to focus on his schoolwork and relax a bit!