The first time I died in a fire


Saturday, January 23, 2010


            One early morning during the summer of 1974, I stirred in the sleep taking the stale scent of smoke.

            I was in that half state of sleep so I kept thinking: “I’ve got to quit smoking, if I can smell it in my sleep.”

            When I opened my eyes, I saw a wall of smoke less than an inch above me so that my nose stuck up into it.

            This was a rooming house in Montclair, full of college kids, drug addicts and poor working stiffs like me with an income too low to pay for an apartment of my own.

            The druggies in the room across the hall had gotten high and nodded off so that their cigarettes or joints or whatever had set fire to the mattress they were lying on.

            They fire woke them and they fled the house, leaving the rest of us to suffer the consequences. While the fire was contained by their closed door, the smoke had oozed out under the door, in the hall and stairwells, filling ever room above three feet from the floor.

            I rolled out of bed into the stuff, coughed and panicked. I had a small room, but for some ungodly reason, I could not figure out which way I had to go to the door – which in some ways was lucky for me since one of the other residents of the house had escaped her room only to fall down the stairs, breaking her leg in the process, and might have died there had not a powerful set of hands grabbed her up and dragged her out to a host of firefighters and EMTs outside.

            When I found the door, I found that God-like figure waiting for me in the hall beyond, gripping my arm, guiding me through the fog to the stairs and down two flights to the front door, where others grabbed me, put a mask over my face to treat me for the huge amount of smoke that my lungs had taken in.

            No one died in that fire. But we could have and would have if not for the quick response and sober judgment of the fire fighters who came in after us.

            They had no idea what to expect inside. They did not know if a wall of flames would greet them. They did not think about themselves but risked their lives to save our lives, and that memory remains fixed in my mind for all time because I could not have found my way out without them.

            This would not be the last time fire fighters would save my life, but it is the first time I realized just how important these people are and how helpless we untrained people would be without them.

            I never even saw the face of that God-like man, just the blur inside the mask. I wouldn’t have recognized his muffled voice later had he come up to me, and I certainly never learned his name. But I will remember him the rest of my life – I had put my trust in him, and he hadn’t betrayed it.

            Perhaps this is the reason why I am so horrified by other men and women who wear similar uniforms who do not live up to the same standard. When that man came for me I knew he would do everything he could to make sure I got out of that building alive, even if he had to die to accomplish it.

            Could I feel so confident in people who I know have already betrayed that trust?

            This week I’ve been hearing a lot of crap about restoring volunteer fire fighters to their former posts – men who resigned rather than tell their side of a horror story that happened back in 2004. Perhaps the legal system worked against them, advising them to keep silent when they wanted to tell us what really happened that early morning. Perhaps the drinking and partying and the arrogance they displayed before the incident and afterwards really isn’t a testimony to their abilities as fire fighters. But I know down deep, if one of them came into a fire to save me, he wouldn’t seem so God-like as the one who did, and I would never feel as confident as I did then that I would get out of that fire alive.

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