At around 845pm last night I was curled up on the sofa at my best friend Judy’s apartment in SoHo, contemplating pizza and waiting for Doctor Who to start on BBC America. I’ve stayed there on and off over the past year, since I gave up my Manhattan lease and, for the time being, it’s my home in New York.
As I flicked though MenuPages I could hear a continuous beeping, like an egg timer, coming from beyond the living room. Judy was at the movies with her boyfriend, so I just ignored it, thinking it would stop eventually. When it didn’t I hauled my lazy ass off the sofa, checked the kitchen, and then opened the door into the narrow communal landing on the fifth floor of the tenement building. The beeping was louder. I thought it was maybe an alarm clock.
I shut the door. Doctor Who was just about to start. A minute later I heard shouting. Opening the front door again I could hear a woman’s voice coming from the landing above in broken chunks of conversation.
“Fire. There’s a fire”.
“We were only on the rooftop for a few minutes”
“It must be electrical. The mattress is on fire”
“It’s major. You have to come quick”
That’s when I realised that whoever was talking was making a 911 call to the FDNY. Then someone, a man, I think, started shouting.
“Get out. GET OUT. The building is on fire”
Looking back I was moving on auto-pilot, as if I were in a film, acting out a scene, not thinking it was serious but aware that there was a set format to follow in these situations. Trying to hammer out an email to Judy on my Blackberry asking her if there was anything vital of hers I needed to take, I grabbed my laptop & my passport from my holdall.
Running back into the kitchen I started pulling out random bureau drawers in the kitchen thinking Judy’s passport might be to hand. Then the shouting from the landing became insistent.
I grabbed my white jacket & handbag from a hook by the front door and, with sandals dangling from my fingers, I sprinted barefoot down the five narrow wooden flights of stairs, swinging myself around the newel posts on each landing.
As I ran, other tenants were coming out their doors. No one had more than a laptop or purse tucked under their arm as we came down into the hallway and spilled out onto the street. There was a fire truck already there from the station on Broome round the corner and, as I looked up, I could hear the crack of the windows exploding above me.
A fireman was right in front uncapping the sidewalk fire hydrant, gushing water over my feet and down Crosby. Crossing the street we stood, clutching our laptops to our chests, staring at the top floor of the building as Ladder 8 unfolded and reached up into the sky. A helicopter whirred overhead, its searchlights illuminating the roof as the fire crew on the ground shone lights at the top floor.
Then the NYPD sprang into action, hustling us rubbernecking tenants down the street to the junction with Broome, unfurling yellow incident tape behind us, effectively corralling the FDNY trucks on our block. As we moved I could see a sheet of flame springing from the back of the building, high and wide as smoke started to billow upwards.
Within minutes what had started as a small house fire had escalated. All I could hear was the wail of sirens as more and more fire trucks started arriving. Streams of firemen, wearing breathing apparatus with oxygen tanks strapped to their banks kept filing down the street to our building.
The Fire Marshall holding us back told me it had escalated to a Second alarm. That’s a major incident Miss, he said. Then the ambulances & EMTs started arriving.
And then it was a Third Alarm and there were more fire trucks arriving and thick ribbons of hose being laid out down the street and I still couldn’t raise Judy by ‘phone and I started crying, and laughing and crying again.
Some idiot onlooker started complaining he couldn’t see any flames and I rounded on him, telling him to go fuck himself, tears running down my face. And then Judy appeared, her body taut with worry as her face swivelled through the crowd trying to find me. I pulled myself together. I may have been in shock, but Judy has lived there for twelve years, and it’s her home, her furnishings, her life.
I think we spent maybe two hours watching the scene unfold. Once, we walked around the block to see what was happening on the other side and spoke to a group of firemen. Huddled together, jackets off, drenched with water, hair standing on end, smoke smears on their faces they gave us a few minutes.
“The roof’s gone. Your floor? Maybe not burnt but water damage. Oh yeah there’s a lot of that.”
They laughed at the idea it could be dry in there.
Much later, when it was clear the fire had been put out, the Marshalls guided the tenants from our building and the evacuees from next door into the cordoned-off street, as a Red Cross Disaster Relief Truck drew up onto the sidewalk. A blind flew up on the side and an elderly grey haired gentleman started dispensing tea, water, biscuits and Red Cross blankets.
I think that’s the point at which we retired to N, the tiny sliver of a tapas bar next door to our building, where Matt the lovely barman dispensed stiff martinis (Judy) and shots of Scotch (me) in the candlelight to the evacuees.
So, we are homeless. Aside from smoke inhalation, there were no major injuries, so we must be grateful that the fire happened in the evening and that we were all able to get out in time.
My photos are here