The Things We Take in a Fire

It was just before 5 p.m. on Saturday when I heard a frantic banging on my front door. I was dressed in just a T-shirt and boxer shorts because it was warm in my apartment, and by the time I pulled on a pair of jeans, the banging had stopped and started again down the hall at another apartment. I opened my door and was hit with a cloud of dark smoke.

“Hello?” I called out.

“Do you smell that?” my neighbor, J., asked from down the hall.

“I see it!”

“Should we call the fire department?” she asked.


J. called 911 while I propped open the front door of my building to let the smoke out. I ran back into my apartment to throw on a pair shoes, and instinctively grabbed my wallet and phone before running back out. No wonder it was so warm in my apartment, I thought. My building is on fire.

J. was on the phone with an operator. “What does it smell like?” she called out.

“It smells like … burning paper!” I called back. “Burning rubber?”

“Is it coming from the basement?”

“I think it’s coming from the basement.”

Three fire trucks showed up within a minute, and 20 men ran into the building. I stood outside and got yelled at by other firemen to get out of the way, but I was trying to figure out why J. hadn’t yet exited the building.

Two other neighbors of mine had exited, looking bewildered.

“I have keys, I have keys!” J. was screaming inside. There was a sound of a crash. I gathered that J. was trying to give the firemen her keys to the basement, but they had already bashed the door in. In fact, they were bashing many doors in — all the apartments on the first floor because they wanted to make sure a fire hadn’t spread up from the basement. It hadn’t, but my apartment was also on the first floor and they were about to bash the door in too when I found myself saying loudly (because I am not a screamer), “I have keys, I have keys!”

Five firemen rushed into my apartment and then rushed back out seconds later.

“All clear.”

It was indeed, all clear. The smoke had begun to clear. The firemen had begun to clear out. Whatever had been happening in the basement was out. The firemen were climbing back on their trucks and driving away.

“What happened, what is happening?” we tried asking the firemen, but no one would tell us.

My neighbors and I stood outside for a while, trying to make sense of it all. And then we ventured back inside and stood in the hallway on the first floor. The smoke was nearly done clearing out, but the smell of burning rubber hung in the air.

“I have a headache, such a big headache,” J. said.

Several things happened then. The first thing that happened was someone showed up to say that he was there to pick up where the fire department left off — to pump the smoke and water out of the building. There was not much smoke to pump out, nor water, so the person left. The second thing was that someone from the Red Cross showed up asking if anyone in the building needed shelter or relocation. It was all in the basement, we said, so the person from the Red Cross left us a number to call just in case. Then someone from Con Edison showed up to look at the damage in the basement and then shut off anything that needed to be shut off. And there went our heat and hot water for the weekend.

The last thing that happened was that a group of neighbors, most of whom who have never met each other, banded together to take action. One of our first floor neighbors had not been home during the commotion, so he had had his door bashed open. The group agreed that we should do what we could to get his door closed, and we filed over to his apartment, trying not to disturb any of his things. We all called the landlord. One neighbor, A., took all of our contact information down to send to our landlord so we could be notified of updates. A. somehow got our neighbor on the first floor on the phone to let him know that there was a fire in our building and that his door was bashed in.

“In case you thought you were robbed,” he said.

“It was the landlord!” J. said, “He had installed a new heating system a few days ago down there and I was sure he had hired a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were doing so he could save money.”

I had been unaware of all this, since I had been away on a work trip the previous week, but A. nodded his head in agreement.

Classic landlord move, I thought.

A plumber showed up, telling us our landlord had sent him. Our landlord sent us all emails using the list that A. had put together to let us know things were getting fixed immediately, though we all felt wary and unconvinced.

Later that night, I found myself in bed and dressed in sweats, my apartment getting colder by the minute since our heat was off. I ran the day’s events back through my head, focusing on the moment when I had rushed back into my apartment to throw on a pair of shoes and grab my phone and wallet. My phone and wallet are things I always grab when I leave my apartment — it was pure instinct. But there were two or three seconds before then when I had looked around. I had eyed my laptop, some photos on the wall, my backpack — and I had decided to take none of it.

There’s this ice breaker that gets asked sometimes at parties, the one where you’re asked what you’d grab to take with you if your house were on fire. The question is less about the literal taking of things during a fire, and more about the things you have and value. I value memories, you say, when a photo album is a part of your answer. Or, I am practical, you want to suggest, when you grab a laptop or an envelope containing your birth certificate and social security card. I am not a monster, you insist, saying you’d grab your cat or dog before running out of the house. On a few occasions, the answer may be nothing, and that is a very real answer.

Once, in college, some people in my dorm stayed up late and asked that question — the one about the hypothetical fire and the things you grab — and one of us, N., said she didn’t want to answer. When we pressed, she said, “Because, for me, the question isn’t a hypothetical. My house burned down when I was in high school, and when it happened, my family and I took nothing. We were lucky to escape with our lives.”

I thought about N.’s answer and my own instincts that day. Go, go, go were the only things going through my mind. So I went. If the fire became serious and engulfed my apartment in flames, well, then so be it. Eat your heart out, Marie Kondo.

And if there was one other lesson I took away from the basement fire, it’s this: I really do have amazing friends.

And thank god I have renters insurance.

Top Photo: Umberto Salvagnin

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