by Gina Sestak
In 1994, my house burned down. I've been thinking about that lately, not because of any incendiary leanings, but because my old insurance carrier, AIG, has been in the news. Being in a fire is something that I wouldn't wish on anyone but, as a writer, the experience provides a wealth of material. One of my unsold manuscripts, Risen From Flames, involves a fire and I was able to use so many of the sensory/tactile memories not only of the fire itself but afterwards: the smell of damp burnt carpeting, the crunch of fallen plaster under foot.
I always thought I knew what to do in an emergency, but I hadn't reckoned on the brain-addling effects of smoke inhalation or how disorienting it can be in the dark when all electric power has gone out and a thick cloud of smoke is billowing through the halls. I forgot the basic rules of fire safety, so let me repeat the most important one here now: When the building you are in is on fire, GET OUT.
The fire started sometime during the night. My ex-husband, Terry, had lost his lease and was staying in my guest room. He came into my bedroom around 3 a.m. and said, "Gina, wake up, the house is on fire." He was still listed as beneficiary on my life insurance at the time. Those eight little words cost him $40,000.
Once awake, I heard the smoke alarm. I think I must have been inhaling toxic fumes to have remained asleep. The smoke alarm was hanging right outside my bedroom door and blaring very loud. I got up and looked into the room where Terry had been sleeping. Mid-way through, there was a solid wall of flame.
"We have to put this out," I said.
"We can't put this out," Terry responded.
It didn't occur to me that he might be right, or that I had a fire extinguisher on the first floor -- assuming that fires were most likely to start in the kitchen or furnace area, I kept in hanging near the cellar stairs. Instead, I went into the bathroom and filled a tiny waste basket with water from the sink, then went to throw it at the fire. The water disappeared into the fire. It didn't even turn visibly to steam. I realized then that he was right. We couldn't put this out.
Terry had been waiting nervously in the hallway while I did this, perhaps wondering whether to leave me there or drag me out. We went downstairs and I sent him to wake the neighbors. We were in the end house of a four-unit row. No one slept in the house next door, which functioned as a doctor's office in daylight hours, but a couple with a baby occupied the next house down. It was important that they be warned. I, meanwhile, went to call the fire department, from the room directly under the room that was on fire. Fire safety rule number two: Things cave in when they burn. DO NOT STAND UNDER THE BURNING ROOM. A smart person would have gone with Terry to the neighbors, and asked them to call 911.
The 911 operator told me to get out of the house.
City paramedics took Terry and me to the hospital. We had inhaled a lot of smoke and he was burned. The mattress he'd been sleeping on caught fire; that probably saved our lives because he woke up when his hand began to burn.
The house wasn't a total loss. Saying it burnt down is an exaggeration. Between the flames and the fire hoses, though, it was essentially gutted. The brick walls made it through okay and some of the floors survived, but there was a point when you could stand in my kitchen on the first floor and look up through what had been the second floor and attic to the underside of the roof. AIG came through. The house was rebuilt from the walls in and all my damaged furniture, etc. was replaced. No one was hurt. Even the pets (about a dozen mice) survived.
So, in retrospect, the fire was an interesting experience.