Fire, Fire, House on Fire

It is 7:08 AM on Sunday, May 23rd 2004. I am sitting in my car behind my burning house. Just about two hours ago my house was struck by lighting and I woke up to the sound of the fire alarms. Although, at the time I did not know about the lighting.

As I waited in bed for the alarms to go off, I thought about how annoying it is when this happens. For some reason over the past few months they have turned on a few times, it never really happened before so I wasn’t used to the deafening sound.

I heard my parents walking around and I assumed that they were trying to turn them off. I wasn’t sure how this was done so I didn’t think anything was amiss about it taking so long.

About 5 or 10 minutes later I started smelling smoke and heard my dad looking in the attic outside my room. It was now he started screaming, “The house is REALLY on fire. Get anything you can and get out!” He said this as he walked down the stairs and when he came back in after putting something outside.

I was a bit panicked and shaken but I grabbed my backpack and threw my computers in it and put on some pants. I should have probably put on the pants with my wallet in them, but for some reason I didn’t. And I should have probably got a jacket as well seeing as it is so cold now.

Once I was outside I started to account for everyone else. My parents and Steph accounted for and my parents were going back into the first floor to get stuff out. This wasn’t filled with smoke as the second floor was so it felt somewhat safe. I didn’t go back in though.

During the rush one of them must have called 911 or the fire department because I could hear the engines and police sirens in the distance but they were not here yet. They would be soon.

The police officer started asking a few questions, making sure we were all outside and about where the fire started. This information was relayed to the first two Dunstable fire trucks who got there as they dismounted and started trying to get the hoses ready.

My neighbors from down the street later said that they could hear them screaming, “We don’t have any pressure, we need water pressure, it’s going up!” These were the words of one of the first men who pulled out houses and went to the front of the house to shoot it with water.

The next hour and a half consisted of watching smoke pour out of every orifice of the house and listening to the occasional breaking of glass from the heat and from the high powered water blasts. After a while, maybe twenty or thirty minutes, we could see fire through the windows and through some holes in the top portion of the house.

These small fires became large and at one point I was no longer cold. The central fire, probably twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, in the top middle of my attic had burned through the roof and was providing a heat and light that made it feel like a warm summer morning.

This spectacle was occasionally interrupted by things such as a dog needing to be put away; a police officer complaining about my parents grabbing stuff out of their office in the basement; the crash of a beam or window inside the house; or, the arrival of another fire truck from another town–Tyngsboro, Groton, and Pepperall were all in attendance.

Watching fire fighters fight fires is rather disheartening. It often seems as if they are doing very little–just spraying a fire that refuses to go out or making sure the hoses don’t get tied or stopped. The fire chief told my father that had they sent anyone up to the attic with a personal fire extinguisher, he probably would have died.

After this hour and a half, however, the fire started to be within their control and they started passing out water, coffee, and donuts while preparing a second team to go in and remove debris and check for stability of the structure.

One of my neighbors was very kind and gave me his jacket and we talked about his son and where he is going to school. I haven’t talked to this man probably since a Halloween in grade school or at some baseball game with his son, whom I never really hung out with much.

In the end, if at this moment when there is no more fires and merely charred wood I can surmise the end, the attic seems to be completely gone as well as the ceiling of the second floor. From the other side of the house we looked in and saw my room filled with black and smoke while the room next to it still have a TV perfectly intact inside a cabinet. I imagine that first floor and the basement are just filled with smoke and water, but I haven’t been inside to check.

Having your house burn in front of you is a very strange experience. It has only been a few hours and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I certainly do not approve of it, but my level of disappointment as not yet been ascertained. This is likely to be a combination of it not yet really setting in that yes, your room is in fact gone, yes all your stuff with it. But now I don’t actually know that do I? I am merely guessing this.

Part of me is thinking of a large forest that needs the occasional fire and purge to clear of the old generation and replenish the soil or however that works. (I only know this from a discussion about why forest fires as so bad now–basically they didn’t allow the little fires years ago so now those little ones aggregate.) So if my house and my stuff are like a forest, then maybe this a chance to do… something?

However clichĂ© it is, I cannot help but think of Fight Club, when Jack’s apartment blows up and he loses everything. He says something to the effect of, “When you buy that new IKEA sofa, you think to yourself: Right, now that I have that sofa situation worked out, no matter what happens I’ll have the sofa covered.” I said very much the same thing a few weeks ago when I bought something relatively expensive but that would probably last, I said, “A hundred dollars for something I’m going to use every day of the rest of my life isn’t such a big deal, is it?”

I called Amanda and let her know what was going on and said to her that this will probably change my outlook on life for quite some time. Even now, before it has even really set in and before I’ve had a chance to fully comprehend what happened I’m thinking of ways I may run my life differently. Silly things like, maybe it isn’t so important to save the box that my Apple computer came in, or maybe I should just read books at a library rather than saving them so that they rot away on a shelf. I feel a very New-Age-lame feeling about the impermanence of material possessions.

This and a few others thought about how I’m going to replace some of the stuff I lost. Like, will I find an alarm clock that wakes me up as effectively as the one I’ve had since grade school? Or, do I really need this or that, etc.

This part of the post ended at 7:43 AM when I heard a crash and started paying more attention to the house.

It is now 5:25 PM and I am sitting in my cousin’s room at my aunt’s house. The whole top two floors of my house are gone. The rest of the house is flooded and damaged by smoke. I went into my room to sift around a bit and managed to take out my passport and my other computer from about a foot of debris–ash and soot.

After some wandering around, Amanda came over and we went to the mall so I could get new clothes. It is very strange, because right now I could hold everything I own on my person.

So, blogging may be light and I may not get back to emails quickly. Additionally, I probably lost any emails that were sent last night.


Jay McCarthy