The Heroics of Humanity

Published Date: September 24th, 2010
Category: Weekly Thought


I never thought I would pull my son from our burning house.

It was a normal, slow Monday morning. We were running late for school (as usual), my son was taking about 5 minutes just to brush his teeth (as usual), and all of a sudden, I heard urgent pounding at the front door.

At 7:50 in the morning.

Now, I should add that we live in the city of Chicago. In a very “diverse” neighborhood that we love, but that has some very interesting individuals. So let’s just say someone pounding on my front door before 8 am on a Monday morning was strange, but not too strange. When I finally made it to the door, a harried-looking, professional mother yelled at me:

“The apartment building next door is on fire. Call 911!”

And then proceeded to grab her son’s hand and run next door to alert the apartment building’s tenants as well.

I jumped onto the front porch and that’s when I heard it: the sounds of flames lapping at the basement decking and stairs next door. I could say that my heart stopped or that I went into fight-or-flight mode or that I tried to put out the fire with my garden hose but in reality, I just stopped for a moment and thought,

“Oh God. Really? This isn’t happening to me.”

But it was. And so I did yell to my son that we had to leave our house because the apartment building was on fire and I did phone 911, where a calm lady answered my call and tried to keep me on the phone  to calm me down, but once I heard,

“Please ma’am, I hear you. The firemen are on their way.”

I slammed the phone down and shouted up to my 5-year-old son, who was frantically trying to grab every stuffed animal he could find and shove them into his pillowcase. And then I looked out our window and saw orange flames and black smoke and realized that it had indeed happened, that in the 2 minutes it had taken me to call 911, our house was now on fire.

Now, this is where the fight-or-flight did indeed kick in because I flew upstairs, grabbed my now hysterical child who was clutching onto his stuffed pillowcase with pudgy little hands of steel and ran down the stairs, somehow grabbed a purse, and rushed onto the street.

Where we proceeded to watch our entire roof catch on fire.

For some reason, my husband left early that morning, so he was on the subway to work. Unreachable. This unfortunately was not my husband’s first fire—his fraternity house burned down in college and he had lost all of his worldly goods of 18 years. And all I could think of was,

“What type of voicemail do you leave for someone when their house is burning down?”

I finally just told him to call me right away and proceeded to frantically dial my neighbors.

Thankfully, Neighbor John was home and within minutes was outside, grabbing my shoeless son from me and pulling us both into a strong embrace. I remember watching the firemen pull up and it was like I was observing some sort of slow-motion, child’s version of a Playmobil fire.

All these bulky-looking men in their big boots and hats ran out of their fire engines, wildly looking around for the hydrant, and then started unrolling the hoses. They seemed SO slow. It seemed like the time between my call and the time when they actually had water coming out of the hose was an eternity. I remember asking my neighbor,

“Why is this taking so long? My house is burning down and they are taking SO DAMN LONG.”

I will never forget that he held me tighter, looked me in the eye and said,

“Serena, I know it seems like this is taking forever but please believe me, they are moving very fast.”

And then he gently guided me and my son to his front porch a few houses away. I sat down and noticed I had no shoes on, that my son only had one shoe, that I had an empty purse, that I had no husband by my side, and that it was possible I was going to lose everything I ever owned.

Within the 2 next hours, I witnessed 10 people become homeless, I saw the powerful and really efficient firemen hack through my fence and into my attic. I also saw the dead fear in my son’s eyes and heard his quiet mantra of,

“But I didn’t get all of my “friends” out. Mama—when can you go get them?”

I watched my husband sprinting from the corner and saw him dejectedly put his work bag down and bow his head, knowing that our happy, little life would be changed if not forever, at least for the next few months.

But I also saw my neighbors, who came up and hugged me and told me we could stay with them, they would feed us. I answered my phone to hear that my friends would take my son, give me clothes. All of the parents from our school were just SO worried about us and even though we had only known them for a year, would not stop calling my cell until they knew we were alive and okay. And finally I saw my parents come around the corner and as soon as my Dad hugged me, I felt the tears just gush down my face.

These aren’t great memories, but they are times where I knew I was loved and supported. Where I knew that no matter what, my husband and son and I were not alone. And although we had lost our roof and the side of our house and had major smoke and mold damage, I do feel blessed. Blessed because if God or fate or whatever higher force could not watch over us in time to stop the fire, at least we have friends and family to watch over us after the fire.

What I want to share is this—if you are a fire-survivor, just know that every day is different. One day, you feel like you can get over this and that, great, you get to start fresh with your house and your possessions and the next day, you wake up in the middle of the night with tears running down your face and did not even realize you were crying. I think what is important is to understand that each of these emotions is a valid one and to just ride each wave of emotion and realize good or bad, it will pass. Maybe you lost everything. Maybe you had a kitchen fire and lost just the use of your kitchen, or maybe, like us, you are somewhere in between.

And if you don’t have the family or the friends or the neighbors we had, realize that the people you meet every day will listen. They might not know you, but they will feel your pain. Tell your grocery store clerk why your hands are shaking when you hear a fire truck outside or let the Starbucks barista know why you jumped SO HIGH when you heard a car backfire that sounded suspiciously like the cracking of wood as it falls to the ground. I will always remember that the woman who would not stop pounding on my door was a stranger. She just happened to be walking by and even though she did not know us or anyone in the building next door, she would not stop pounding on every one of our doors until we were safe.

Always remember and hold onto this when you think you cannot make it through the day: the compassion of the human race is not gone and wherever you are, you are not alone.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 24th, 2010 at 3:17 pm and is filed under Weekly Thought. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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