How to Survive an Apartment Fire – and How Not to

Mike and I woke up Tuesday morning to a loud knock on our door, which Mike realized, upon opening the door, was a kind neighbor informing us that our apartment’s elevator was on fire.

Remarkably calmly, we put on shoes, gathered the cats into their carrier, and put our packet of irreplaceable documents into my purse.  Then we walked out the door, into the smoke and the approaching sirens, totally at peace with the thought that everything might burn.  I then waited peacefully in a parking lot nearby our apartment, keeping our cats out of the noise and soaking up the gorgeous morning.

How to Survive an Apartment Fire 1 - Gingham and Steel
Actual photo taken that morning

It was totally different from what happened two years ago.

At a quarter to six in the morning of late August 2011, I awoke with a start and bolted up to a sitting position.  Snapping my head to the right, I realized the orange glow I was looking at was our kitchen – on fire.

I can only say that God woke me up, for Mike and I had removed the battery from the fire alarm that summer due to its constant screaming when we tried to cook dinner.  (No one became more diligent about keeping the batteries IN the smoke alarm than us after this experience!)

“Mike!” I panicked, shaking him awake.  “Our kitchen is on fire!”

We leaped out of bed and started running in circles like cartoon characters, I kid you not.  I kept opening windows, searching for the cats, trying to figure out what we should grab, and thinking helpful thoughts like, “I can’t put a blanket on that fire, it’s too big!”  Thank you, years of chemistry, for teaching me how to put out an electrical fire and thus confusing me when confronted with a normal fire…

Mike and I went to run out the door, and I turned to look at him and shouted, aghast, “Mike, you have to put on pants!”  (The man sleeps au natural.)  He cursed, spun around, and began frantically trying to yank pants on, the memory of which is now hilarious but which wasn’t at ALL at the time.

Fortunately, while he was wrestling with a pair of pants, his logical mind kicked in, and he thought, “I bet I could put that fire out – it’s not that big.”  So he said as much (while I began berating myself for my foolishness), then ran to the kitchen and began filling up a pot of water, standing next to the flames licking up the sides of our hood cabinet and dancing on top of our stove in what he said was the longest 10 seconds of so of his life.

The fire was so hot that it melted the blinds fifteen feet away.  I don't know how Mike stood next to it waiting for the pot to fill!
The fire was so hot that it melted the blinds fifteen feet away. I don’t know how Mike stood next to it waiting for the pot to fill!

3 or 4 pots of water later, Mike had doused the flames entirely.  However, by this time, the smoke level was terrifying, despite my desperate attempts to open all the windows and doors and try to fan the smoke out (which, in hindsight, was actually SO less helpful).  So, coughing and choking, with eyes smarting, we now tried to find our cats, so that we could run downstairs to call the fire department.

Of course, the loud noises of the smoke alarm in the hallway, plus the frantic, shouting panic of Mike and me, had scared the cats out of their minds.  We couldn’t find them anywhere, and we got more upset with each passing moment.  People say that if you have a fire, you should leave your pets and save yourselves, but Mike and I were in complete agreement that our cats were our children.  To save ourselves but let them perish was a fate we could not have ever lived with.

Eventually, it came to me that they must have hidden under the bed.  Sure enough, in the very back corner, back behind the suitcases and boxes, they were paralyzed in fear – and in no mood to be caught.

We finally got a hold of Claude and had to drag him out, which of course freaked him out even more.  Then we tried to stuff him into the cat carrier vertically (not a great choice), from which he popped out like a jack-in-the-box – he must have leaped five feet in the air!  He then took off down the hallway, skidded to a halt when he realized he’d never been out there, and froze stiff.  Deciding that the miserable known was better than the terrifying unknown, he then allowed Mike to pick him up and acquiesced meekly to being put in the cat carrier.  In the meantime, I had gone in to try to get Meg – only to find that she’d wandered calmly out from under the bed, waiting to see where Claude had gone.  Scooping her up, we had no trouble putting her in the carrier, and out to the sidewalk we went to call 911.

Despite the fact that we explained to the operator that the fire had been put out, 8 firetrucks, 2 sheriffs, 1 ambulance, and 3 police cars showed up to our door.  And honestly, I don’t remember much from this point on, other than calling our parents to let them know what had happened and that we were safe.

What happened inside was that the firemen ripped open the wall of our kitchen, yanked the hood off the cabinet, shoved the stove out of the way, and checked to make sure that the fire wasn’t actually in the wall and the electrical wiring.  Then, satisfied that nothing was burning any more, they closed the door to our bedroom and bathroom, set up some fans to clear out the smoke, and tromped back down to the street to discuss the situation with our super, leaving one heck of a destroyed kitchen in their wake.

What we came home to
What we came home to
And this was just a SMALL fire!
And this was just a SMALL fire!
The remains of our wall and hood
The remains of our wall and hood

 

How we got our kitchen back to normal is another long tale, but suffice it to say it took our landlord almost two months to fix it up, plus another eight months to paint most of the smoke-covered walls in the apartment.  (And we can still show you smoke damage on a few walls and ceilings here and there.)  We didn’t lose more than $30 or so in personal property, and we did gain a dishwasher out of the ordeal, plus a couple months of learning what it was like to get to eat out every meal (that grass was NOT greener!), so we tried not to complain too much.

We did, however, have to clean every single dish we owned.  Smoke is IMPOSSIBLE to clean.
We did, however, have to clean every single dish we owned. Smoke is IMPOSSIBLE to clean.  We were allowed to complain about this…

But they never did figure out the cause of the fire.  Everyone’s best guess is that it was an electrical short in our hood, which lit the grease in the grease trap and then spit down to catch the pilot light in the stove, but there was literally no way to tell.  We DID, however, have to endure constant accusations that it was our Christmas lights that caused it (which we were using as undercabinet lighting) – despite the fact that the crime scene clearly illustrated that the Christmas lights were not plugged in that night.  Suffice it to say that we have not considered reinstalling Christmas lights in our kitchen…

Mike and I spent months talking over that crazy morning, noting what we did well, agreeing on what we did completely wrong.  We both thought, however, that it was one of the best things that could have happened to us for so many reasons – learning how to work together in our marriage, finding out what our disaster responses were, and realizing what our priorities are.  And I know it’s why we were so calm when this week’s fire happened – having walked through this situation before, we knew what mattered, and that’s all we focused on.

So here are our recommendations for what to do in case of an emergency like a fire:

  • Know where your Important Documents are, and be able to grab them at a moment’s notice.  I keep our passports, birth certificates, and social security cards in an envelope that is easy to grab, because those are our only real sources of identification, and some of them cannot be replaced.
  • Keep your pet carrier by the door and easy to grab.  I remember fighting with our front closet last time, trying desperately to get the cat carriers out.  This time, it sat right on top and was easy – no panicking necessary.
  • Stay calm.  It’s sooooo counter-intuitive to what you want to do, but staying clear-minded will help you and your family to stay focused on what’s important.  You’ll also be better able to hear those little thoughts guiding you to safety.
  • Close your doors.  Unlike our first time, when I opened all the doors and windows in a failed attempt to air it out, I know now that the best option is to CLOSE as many doors as possible.  This most helps keep the smoke from spreading into otherwise safe rooms (we could have left our cats in the bedroom with the door closed and they’d have been fine), which is good for breathing and extremely helpful for the inevitable cleanup later.
This is what smoke damage looks like.  Those were white walls and a white ceiling.
This is what smoke damage looks like. Those were white walls and a white ceiling.
  • Get renter’s/homeowner’s insurance.  A friend and neighbor recommended we do so just a couple months before our fire happened.  I can’t imagine how stressful the experience would have been without it.  Of course, we STILL haven’t managed to take photos to document all of our possessions, but it’s on the ToDo list and will go a long ways towards making me feel more prepared.
  • Talk things over ahead of time.  While I went through a slightly crazy end-of-the-world phase following this experience (I’m better now!), it was helpful to think through and talk out disaster scenarios with Mike after the fire.  When Hurricane Sandy hit us, for example, we were super prepared and extremely unperturbed, precisely because we’d discussed what our disaster preparations should include.  There are tons of sites on the internet with great tips for various disaster preparedness, so I won’t try to play expert.  Especially since every family is different – a saferoom is an impossible concept in our little apartment, as is a giant stockpile, so those aren’t considered essentials on our list.
  • Sleep with clothes on.  However, I should note that I still haven’t won this battle with Mike…

 

So that’s our apartment fire(s) story!  We’re grateful it happened but not anxious to live through it again.  Have you dealt with anything like this in your life?

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