Last Friday at 5 o'clock in the morning while most of us were peacefully sleeping, a local family was waking up to the smell of smoke. The entire family managed to escape their home but the electrical fire consumed anything they didn't think to grab as they rushed out the door with their children. We put the word out on our FB page and received a wonderful response from the community. People have donated winter coats, clothing, and gift cards to help lighten the heavy burden that comes from waking up one morning and realizing you've lost all your possessions.
Their story could be any one of our stories. Fire is indiscriminant and can break out (as we've recently seen in Annapolis) in a palatial mansion or in the saddest of run down shacks. As s girl my grandmother lived with her father in a fairly run down little shack. A fire destroyed her home when she was about 8. Even in her 80's she described the sound of the piano keys banging out terrible notes as the rafters fell down from above. She still laments the loss of the one thing she had left from her mother (who died of Tuberculosis when she was 6) - a trunk of dresses she had sewn for her before she died, the only thing she could do as a mother to try and take care of a child she knew she wouldn't live to see grow up.
Fire is my story as well. When I was 20 I had my first apartment. One night I heard my roommates whispering outside my door trying to decide if they should wake me up for yet another smoke alarm going off in the building. We lived above a restaurant and it happened pretty often that we'd get false alarms in the middle of the night. I figured I would go with them, so I pulled on some sweats and we all put on our winter coats and headed out the door. By the time we got to the next floor we could see and smell the smoke, by the time we got out the door and were on the sidewalk the smoke was black and billowing.
The fire department arrived minutes later and they went in with respirators and full protective gear. We watched as they carried our neighbors out, slung over their shoulders. We watched as the staircase, which had become a pool of black smoke, erupted into flames and collapsed. At that point the firemen started carrying people out the back fire escape (a spot we had previously used for grilling or party over-flow). We stood there on a snowy sidewalk in Iowa, freezing, on March 26th, watching as smoke began to pour out of every crack and seam of the old building. I watched as my bedroom window began to glow orange and red, and eventually saw the flames burst through and lick the rooftop.
There is no detail of that night that I do not remember, but I'll spare you the rest. The days that followed were a blur of feeling lost, afraid and overwhelmed. I stayed on friends couches until I could find a place of my own, I met with the insurance agent (luckily my mom's home owners insurance covered my losses) and I was fairly quickly handed a fat check to go out and begin to replace everything I had lost.
But here is the thing, when you lose everything; no matter how much you buy, you will never again feel you have everything. Sure you'll have a couch and a microwave again, but you'll never have your baby book back. You'll never have your grandmothers watch but you'll always have the feeling that you are never fully safe. I will forever mourn the loss of the irreplaceable items I left behind that night, just like my grandmother mourns the loss of her irreplaceable items 70 years earlier.
The fire changed me, not for better or for worse, but forever. It will do the same to the family from last week. I hope, through my sharing my story it will do the same for you. Look around your house and think about what really matters to you. Make sure your children understand what to do in case of a fire, have a plan and invest in a fire safe or at the very least, gather your irreplaceable items together in one bag and keep it somewhere you can quickly grab and go. And please, always be sure there is a working smoke alarm in every room. Fire moves quickly and smoke is deadly, early warning is the only way to be sure your children and loved ones have a chance. Click HERE for a link to the Loudoun County fire resource page, they will install or replace alarms and batteries for free.
Wishing the best for you and your families,