July 4th 2015, 10pm : I remember my son and I had been watching some fireworks, that some of my neighbors were lighting up in front of their houses. We live in a nicely secluded townhouse section of my community. It was all fun and you could hear fireworks near and far that night. Finally we decided to go up to our 3rd floor bedroom. Next day was Sunday, and my wife and I were planning to watch a movie with a late night cup of coffee, once my Son went to bed.
My Son went in his room to get something. He returned with a worried look and said to my wife “Mommy the kid next door is crying outside and his dad is also running out”.. I simply ignored him whereas my wife tried to say something to him to just let it be. After brushing his teeth and lying down in bed, my Son still wasn’t convinced – “but Mommy the kid was crying a lot and there was some light too”. Two minutes later, my Son and my wife said, someone is banging on the main door. I had not even heard it! Irritated, I went down to open the door…. And that’s when it all started for us..
That moment is still in my mind today.. A cop and my other neighbor were at the door telling me to get out immediately because the house adjacent to ours was ON full blown FIRE!
We live in a townhouse, which basically means when I say adjacent house, it and my house share a wall. I looked out the door and saw my neighbor’s garage in flames! I yelled at my wife and Son to come down. At that point, there was nothing to think.. The fire was huge and there was no chance to go back and grab anything. The cop simply wouldn’t let me go back in. My Son and wife came running down the stairs, all of us in our pajamas. Me, my wife and my Son, without wearing any shoes or sandals, ran down the stairs and stood at a distance, in front of the house! The lights in our house were still on.. The entire neighborhood was out of their homes, watching the fire engulfing my neighbor’s house, one floor at a time!
I saw my neighbor, the one whose house was burning, a not-so-social guy with 2 kids and a wife, who was doing fireworks just a few minutes back.. Now staring at his house burning in front of his eyes with his family. I asked him what happened, and he apologized and said it was his mistake, and that after the fireworks, he had disposed off the used fireworks in a plastic bag and trashed them in the garage without checking if they were completely put out or not!!
At that point, we all thought the fire trucks will be here in no time and the fire will be put out immediately in the garage!..
The owner of the house in front of me had called 911 by then but the fire trucks had not arrived yet. The fire was raging now at an amazing speed.. Seeing that the fire was going out of control, my wife and my Son just couldn’t control it, and started crying. I had never seen my Son crying this way.. He was overwhelmed and gasping for air while crying..! The flames were growing stronger and I was trying hard to comfort my Son and wife, telling them again and again not to worry. But I knew I was reaching my limits too. I wanted to shout or cry, but nothing came out at that time. In desperation, I yelled at the cop as to why the firefighters were not there yet..
The fire had reached all three floors. One by one, everything inside my neighbor’s house was crashing down. I was getting more and more worried about our house. We did not have anything with us at that point in time.. Everything we had built over the last 16 years of being in the US, was sitting precariously next to that burning inferno! Just one handset of our Vonage landline, which my wife had accidentally brought with her, was our only connection to our possessions at that point. Just then, my neighbor’s metal garage door crashed with a loud bang. Everything in our house just went flashing by before my eyes and I almost came on the verge of panic. By now my Son had lost all patience and even in that exhaustion of crying, he was yelling – “why aren’t the firefighters here yet Daddy? Is our house going to burn too?”.. I couldn’t bear to watch his state and I pulled both him and my wife closer. I knew I wasn’t convincing but I looked him in the eye and said, “Don’t worry! We will handle whatever happens..” And I knew that wasn’t comforting.. it was kinda’ ominous!
A distant sound of several sirens was like music to the ears at that time! It took 13 mins for fire trucks to arrive at the scene from the moment the 911 call was made, and those 13 mins felt like eternity to us and were fatal! The flames were huge now and the time the firefighters were taking to set up their equipment, the ladders and hoses was an immense torture! I had lost hopes of finding our house intact by then.
My wife took my Son inside the house of another neighbor to calm him down, leaving me with our wireless handset of our landline! There were so many onlookers.. Back then and even afterwards.. Watching that house, watching the affected people like us… But with both, my Son and wife gone inside, I wanted to talk to someone. But I didn’t have my cell phone and the handset my wife had brought with her did not have all the numbers. I called my friend, Vivek, from Maryland and described the situation to him.. He said he is going to start driving to my place right away, but it was midnight and I told him to wait.
The firefighters had started spraying the burning house from all directions. A few of them went into our house with a hose and some axes! And that’s when my heart started sinking! I started imagining our common wall on fire, my house getting sprayed with water… I was cursing in my mind, I just couldn’t help feeling angry about my neighbor’s negligence. WE DIDN’T WANT THIS.. And I knew neither did he, but it was because of him that we were where we were at that instant!
I answered questions from cops, talked to Red Cross, got instructions from our gas company who had come to turn off the gas connections, talked to our home insurance as per instructions from the cops, .. Everything in an almost robotic manner. In the meanwhile, my wife searched up numbers for a couple of my local friends on someone else’s computer. I could finally reach one other good friend of mine, Mahendra, who stays relatively close, around 1am. He said he is coming right away..
All this while, the firefighters were fighting the fire from outside and then from the inside, breaking windows, spraying the roof, spraying the front, back, everywhere! Without our knowledge, all this time, a huge fire was burning on the back side of the house! Our neighbor who lives in the house opposite to ours, one who had called 911, and who had taken my Son inside to lie down, was kind enough to bring us some tea, which felt so good at the time! Now all we could do at that point, was to face whatever was in front of us. My friend arrived by then and I could answer the “do you have some place to sleep tonight” question from Red Cross, with a confident ‘Yes’.. But deep in that question was a disturbing question – “why won’t we be able to sleep in our house tonight“?!
By 3am, the fire was put out.. Standing there for 5 hrs at night, watching the fire, dealing with all the parties, worrying about everything was already taking a toll and I was impatient to go and check our house from inside. No part of our house appeared to have caught fire, the lights in our house were still On, the handset in my hand was still working with a ringtone.. These were our pillars of hope in those hours!
Finally at 3:30am, the firefighters told us that we can go inside and quickly grab whatever we want to get from our house! They were going to accompany us. I can’t forget that moment.. Our house stood there all that time in front of us.. with lights On, one of our cars in our driveway covered by the plastic that the firefighters had thrown on it,.. AND, now as the realization came, WITH OUR PET BIRDS STILL INSIDE!!! At that time, I felt almost sick in my stomach.. When the moment came and we were told to get out immediately, WE HAD FORGOTTEN TO BRING OUR PARAKEETS WITH US! They were still in their cage.. Looking back, I can’t really say what we felt. All that matters now was, we found them alive and well.. They had survived our smoke filled house.. No fire had come through.. I started picking up important stuff, all the while hiding my tears, thinking about our birds and the fact that they had got left behind.. and I knew my wife was in a similar state!
The firewall between the houses had protected our house. The deck was a bit damaged, basement had some water, smoke was everywhere.. But our house was fine! I slowly moved into the garage while my wife was packing our stuff.. Our new car was in the garage on the same side as the burning house, and I feared it might have melted on that side. But again to my surprise, no heat had come through! My spirits were rising as I checked each and every thing. A lot of things had gone in our favor.. The neighbor had thankfully pulled out his car from his burning garage in time (!), the structure of our house relative to the burning house had prevented much of the damage, the wind was blowing away from our house… The neighbor on the other side of the burning house was not so lucky though. His house had some major side damage but a tenant was living there, and he moved out the next day.
Finally we came out, me holding the bird cage, and my friend Mahendra and my wife carrying other important stuff. And we all went to my friend’s place that night.. It had been a long ordeal.. Little did I know, that getting the house back to normal would be an even bigger task ….!
At my friend’s house, we described the whole incident to his wife. And that was going to have to be repeatedly narrated hundreds of times to many people after that day! We slept at 4:30am that day, and I got up at 7am to drive back to our house in the morning. It was a beginning of the path to recovery…
After that day, Insurance guys took over, we restored the gas connection, got cleaning company started, got hotel accommodations through Assured Locations, changed hotels 5 times, had big machines cleaning the air and vents in the house, drying the basement carpet, keeping all restaurant bills for reimbursements, moved our stuff around everywhere we went, kept moving our birds with us, missed many work hours, got invited for dinners by friends, still kept our weekends plans and India vacation plans going, rounded up everything made from cloth in the house and gave it to another company for offsite cleaning, constantly lived out of our bags, didn’t have home cooked food, visited our house with smoke masks, for 20 days..
The air was better now and with family gone to India, I just decided to move back into the house. They brought back hundreds of clothes, rugs, mats, curtains that they had taken for cleaning and I had the mountainous task of putting it back the way it was! That’s how I spent my 2 weeks without my family! The smell is still there, but once they change all the carpet in the house, repaint all the house, do the repairs for drywalls, deck and the roof, we are hoping it will go away. It will take from mid-Aug to end of September.. and we will go through with it, taking one-day-at-a-time. The house next door will get built in time.. Yes, we will have that with us for a while..
But that’s the story of our month-long struggle so far.. In time, all stories fade from your memory and they should. You don’t need to hold onto unpleasant memories if they are not helpful in any way. When I said that I lost all appetite for firecrackers after this, my Son said something very profound to me.. he said, “Daddy just because someone did it wrong, doesn’t mean we should change our ways! As long as we are taking the right precautions why should we change?” Have to thank my 10yr old Son for infusing this wisdom in me! It did change my outlook back from my initial reactionary thoughts..