Three months ago my girlfriend and I were sleeping in her apartment bedroom. At about seven in the morning the sound of her screams awakened me. Still somewhat befuddled from the previous evening’s wine, it took several moments to fully absorb the situation.
Something ominous and orange was glowing in the corner of my periphery, a dull, crackling roar constant in the background. The sound of the flames licking up the walls is a singular, terrifying sound. In hindsight it took us all of a minute to recognize the fire already gaining momentum in the bathroom across the hallway. Adrenaline surged and I vaguely recall saying something helpful like “we need to get out of here now!” as we both sprinted across the carpeted floor. A brief search for a phone and a cat yielded only the latter and in moments two underwear-clad college students and one panicked Persian were banging down neighbors’ doors to call 911. In the three minutes since we’d been awake, the smoke had descended from a thick, ceiling-obscuring curtain to a knee-level wall of opaque, choking black, stinking of burning plastic and I didn’t even make a step through the doorway before being driven back. Wallets and computers would, unfortunately, not be saved that morning.
Fortunately the fire department had an excellent response time and they were chopping holes in the apartment within minutes. I’ve never felt so helpless, standing in the sunrise and watching what was left of my girl’s every wordly possession slowly drifting into the atmosphere in charred, particulate form.
We never really knew what started the blaze save that it began somewhere in the bathroom. The flames themselves were extinguished relatively quickly, and contained to only two rooms and in an hour or two we were escorted through what remained. The smoke damage obliterated the entire apartment. Everything - literally everything - was coated in a solid layer of greasy black, acrid with the stink of burned plastic and utterly useless. Even items in closed, locked cabinets weren’t spared, ruined by smoke. Everything within three feet of the ceiling, even across the apartment from the fire’s origin, was melted into unrecognizable, thready shapes.
Once familiar, walking through that place, with Sunday sunlight streaming through where they’d punched out the ceiling, was an utterly surreal experience. What once looked so familiar, comforting, and safe was now bleak, barren, and alien. If I hadn’t just fled from the place, moments before, I doubt I would have recognized the living room we’d stayed in for two years prior.
The next day we began looking for a new…everything. Fortunately there were few items of irreplaceable sentimental value present in the apartment - nonetheless it cost thousands to replace everything. No renters insurance.
The fire alarm never went off. My girlfriend to this day doesn’t know what woke her up that morning. Two or three minutes later and we would have both died in bed. How quickly the smoke filled the room is, to this day, chilling. House fires are things that happen to other people.