Emerging from Ashes: Staffer shares story of last week’s house fire

By: Olivia Martin

Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 3:45 a.m.

I never expected my life to be completely turned upside down when I went to bed on Sunday, Oct. 11. I nodded off as I thought about what I was going to wear the next day and what I needed to do for college applications. Unbeknownst to me, everything would change just a few hours later.

During the night, due to causes still unknown, sparks ignited and set my garage ablaze. I was the first one to notice the flames at 3:45 a.m. I must have either sensed that there was light or heard one of the loud pops coming from the growing fire. There was a moment of disbelief at what I was seeing: bright yellow and orange flames through the large bank of second floor windows in our music room. Then, adrenaline rushed through me. I hurriedly put on pants and then screamed “FIRE! FIRE!” to wake up my parents and little sister. I didn’t even think about grabbing anything in the house. My intuition to run was stronger than I thought possible. All that I knew was that I needed to leave fast.

My sister and I ran across the street to Seerley Park. My dad paced on the sidewalk outside of the house while on the phone with 911. At the same time, my mom ran back into the house and returned with my cello in one hand and my sister’s guitar in the other. She went in a second time to grab a blanket that we could sit on.

As we sat huddled in a blanket at Seerley Park, we became spectators of our own tragic reality. It was there that I experienced the most painful moments I have ever had. I screamed and wailed at the top of my lungs and cried desperate, angry tears. The garage was a huge mass of fire and the flames were three stories high and spreading quickly to my house. The only thing that my family could do was watch as the flames began to consume our home. Although it took eight minutes in reality, the time we sat waiting for the firemen to show up felt like an eternity. I knew the back of the house, which the flames had started consuming, was where my and my sister’s rooms were, as well as the space where I had all of my music and equipment for my cello. However, this was a fleeting thought because the two things I was most concerned about were my cats, Sam and Freddy.

The firefighters arrived in huge trucks with too-bright flashing red, blue and white lights. Every time I saw a fireman, I yelled, with manic persistence, “Have you found our cats yet?” Every minute I pressured them with the same question, rephrased in a different way, “Are you looking for our cats?” and “Can you please go see if our cats are OK?” The thought of losing one of our cats was almost too much for me to bear. Finally, Freddy walked out of the open front door in a daze. Even though we were told that we couldn’t go near the house, I ran onto the porch and grabbed him. His fur smelled like smoke, and he seemed confused, but he was safe in my arms. I held onto him and cried as I carried him over to where my sister was sitting on a blanket in the park, and then we were all crying together. Freddy meowed loudly, and huge tears spilled from my sister’s and my cheeks.

At this point, concerned neighbors and friends had started to flock to the park. Someone I had never met before came with two cat carriers, and our neighbors from across the park offered us clothes.

I was really happy that Freddy was safe, but I was scared for Sam. He is an old cat who gets frightened even by the presence of a vacuum cleaner. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for him to be running around, trying to find his way out of our smoldering house. The moment when a firefighter stepped out of the house with Sam in his arms, my insides melted and suddenly I felt OK. The whole family was safe now, and the terrible images that had been floating around in my head of my beloved cat running around hopelessly and inhaling too much smoke vanished. I took Sam and cradled him for a long time. Usually, he would have started squirming after a while, but that morning, he didn’t. We needed each other.

The firefighters eventually put out the fire. The sky had changed from black to pale morning colors. From the park, the house did not look very damaged. My sister and I, both barefoot, walked across the street and followed my dad around to the other side of the house to survey what had happened. Even though I was half blind without my glasses, I could make out the damage that had been done. The garage was nothing but black charred wood on the ground, with the shells of our two melted cars sitting on top. I was horrified. The room that I had loved to practice cello in so much was completely scorched, and the situation for my room and my sister’s room did not look promising either.

Later that day when we were permitted to actually enter the house, all of my fears were confirmed. Along the staircase leading upstairs, a collection of our family photographs still hung, but it was all wrong. The white wall had black and gray scorch marks running up and down it. The picture frames were all tilted at different angles and the glass holding the photos in place was slightly charred. It seemed to me like a twisted metaphor for what had happened to my family. We were still hanging, but off-kilter, and a little bit singed.

I was not prepared to walk into my bedroom. The room had previously been a white-walled space with a striped pink chair, art on the walls and a bed with warmly colored blankets. It was where sunlight filtered in through the window on sunny mornings. The fire had turned the walls black, covered everything with soot and made it look like it was straight out of a horror movie. I could tell that it was still my room, but a different version. This one from a dark nightmare.

My sister’s room was in a similar condition to mine, and I’m sure she felt the same way. Our rooms had been our sanctuaries, and anyone who had ever been in them would argue that they were uniquely us. Even more shocking was the music room just a couple steps away. The room was a shell of what it had once been. As it was closest to the garage, the fire affected it the most. It was so bad that, on that crisp, sunny morning, I could see light filtering up through the charred floorboards. Seeing the light coming through all of the blackness, I felt, somehow, like a new beginning. It was beautiful in its despair, and I remember turning to my friend and telling him, “There’s something poetic about this right now.”

There is something about an experience like the one I have had that puts everything else in perspective. Once you’ve been that close to death and have been traumatized like my family, the little things that you used to worry about seem almost meaningless. I think that’s why going back to school was hard for me. Everyone was so consumed in their own lives still: what photo to post on Instagram, what test they had next hour, the usual school gossip. (And maybe this was my life before the fire.) Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t want the entire school to live through a house fire so that we could have common ground. But, it did hurt me when I walked into classes and no one said a word to me, asked if I was OK or gave me a hug, which is what I really needed. And so, even though my close friends and family were there for me, there was an absence of compassion at school that got to me. There have been many firsts since the fire, but crying at school was one that I was not expecting.

Now, it has been about a week since the fire, and although the saying is a total cliché, life since waking up at 3:45 a.m. to the sight of flames has been an emotional rollercoaster. My family is very lucky because we have so many people who care about us — some people that I didn’t even know cared about us. Through this experience, we have become closer to people and (literally) closer to each other. Tragedy does bring people together, and it’s a beautiful thing. I personally have tried my best to see the situation as a chance for a new beginning. We lost a lot, but we haven’t lost each other, and I believe that we will make it through this stronger than ever before. At least that is our goal.

Although our situation is progressing every day, I think that there will always be a part of me that is still at the park, watching my house burn down. I have never been that vulnerable and helpless before in my whole life. I am one who likes to feel in control, and to feel so desperately defenseless was awful. Ultimately, our house will be rebuilt in six to eight months. But, the effects of the trauma will be with me for a much longer time. My whole family has nightmares about what happened. At the hotel where we are staying, an orange glow radiating from the neon sign can be seen from our room window. Seeing orange light coming from the window never fails to give me a mini heart attack every time I wake during the night. We all look at life differently now than before.

This isn’t how I envisioned most of my senior year — living in a hotel or a rented house, each day reaching for something that was lost in the fire. But while the heat from the fire burned most of my belongings, it has created stronger relationships and given me a new lens with which to look at life. I’ve come out of this experience a little charred, but mostly more resilient, something that will enable me and my family to bounce back from this tragedy and keep moving forward.

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