This is a series of posts that I really don't want to write. Unfortunately, I just know I need to get them out there.
I've told the story of the fire countless times over the past month, so I'm really not excited about writing it out. But I know I'll forget it long term if I don't write some of these things down.
Like it has been for most of the summer now, it was an extremely hot day. But as I walked into the office that morning, I remember that it was rather windy. I also remember that I had an extremely productive morning. I had just wrapped up a project in the early afternoon when my friend Larry called. Larry works right across the street from our house and, when I saw it was him, I just knew it was something at the condo. As I picked up, I could hear the sirens in the background.
"Steve, you need to get home. Your condos are on fire."
As I grabbed my keys, I asked him if it was our place on fire. I said it was "the one on the end," so I was fairly confident that we'd be OK. But I'm on the HOA board of our condos and I knew most of the people who lived in that building, so I rushed out the door to get home. I called Kelly, who had just dropped off Kaelyn at her grandparents' house. She was in northern Kentucky having lunch and was on the way home. I knew it was serious as I turned onto Gilbert Avenue and the police had the road blocked off.
"I live there," I told the officer.
He let me through and I saw that this wasn't just a small fire. Smoke was billowing from the rooftops. I parked halfway down the street and ran up the hill. There were dozens of onlookers watching firemen fight a three alarm fire. I still don't fully understand the extent of the alarm system, but I could tell that our home was now in harm's way. The unit next door to ours was in flames. There were fire hoses lining the walkway in front of our door. And firefighters were blasting our house with water and foam to keep it from flames.
I'll admit that I was in mild shock. In the chaos of the scene I just uttered, "that's my house." I felt like I should "do" something, but there was nothing to be done. I pulled out my camera from my bag to snap a few photos; not sure why I did (none of them turned out well). I called my neighbors whose homes were now in flames so I could give them the grim news. My hand was shaking as I was attempting to maneuver around my phone. After I made some calls, I saw a fireman coming from our place holding a wet cat. It was my neighbors cat. He was looking for someone to grab it from him and I volunteered.
You see, Kaelyn loves that cat. She cherished anytime she could play with it. The cat would stare out the window at us when we came home. And I know that my neighbor cherished that cat, so I took it from the firefighter.
"If you're going to take it, you have to give that cat oxygen," he said. It seemed ridiculous to me at the time—my house is on fire and I'm giving oxygen to a cat—but I obliged. There was a local media outlet on the scene (there were many there that day) that videotaped me giving the cat oxygen. Fortunately, the footage never made public broadcast.
I handed off the cat right as Kelly arrived. All we knew to do was hug and try to comfort our neighbors as they made it to the scene. Fortunately, they had the fire under control, but there was considerable damage. It looked like the eight residences just south of ours were seriously damaged while ours was saved. I truly can't credit Cincinnati Fire Department enough. It was an incredibly hot afternoon and these men in full gear fought hard to save our house. It was amazing. I'm forever grateful.
While it seems like minutes now, it was about three hours until we could get into our house. We wanted to help our neighbors move what was left of their possessions into our place so a few of them could spend the night with us. As we reached our front door, it was wide open: the firefighters had busted open the door with an axe to make sure that no one was there. It was a little sad that our nice door was now useless, but at least they cared enough to make sure everyone was safe (I found out later from Larry that one of his coworkers saw the fire starting and knocked on doors to make sure people were safe). We started moving some of our neighbors' water-logged items into our place and, as Kelly and I stood there, we remarked how we smelled smoke in our place. We were so thankful that we were spared from the flames that we didn't really survey the scene in our place: the doorway was open as smoke filled the area between our condos. Even though there wasn't black soot, the stench of smoke was in our place too.
I called the insurance agent who suggested that we spend the night in a hotel. Just the year before they put in a new hotel down the street so we booked it for a couple of nights. I actually had a wedding rehearsal scheduled that night up north of the city, so I left Kelly at the scene to pack up a few things so we could get out of the house. That night, as we tried to get a grip on the last twelve hours, we scanned local media to see what they were reporting. The only glimpses of me was holding the cat. And I laughed when I heard the amount of the damage the fire cause, as it was a figure that I added up as a guess and gave the fire chief.
A few more things about that day:
- The amount of onlookers was crazy. There are offices surrounding our place which made it a huge event. Throughout that evening and, in the days to come, people would drive by and walk by just to catch a glimpse. The Sunday after the fire I saw some people in the parking lot who used to live in one of the units that had burned down.
- The contractors came out of the darkness looking for work. Within an hour of the fire, there were people on the scene looking for work. By the end of the night, I ended up mediating a dispute between two contractors who were on the scene looking to do work. It just makes me thankful I have a job.
- Eight of our neighbors had homes that had been affected by the fire. Two of them were total losses, three were extreme losses, and three more were damaged extensively. My guess at the time was that it would be October before the people would be moved back in. I might have been too aggressive in my guess.
- Even though we live in the city, and didn't have extensive relationships with our neighbors, everyone banded together to make sure everyone was OK. Fortunately, everyone was insured and had employment so, while the loss was still significant, there will be opportunities for people to recover.
The next morning, the events of the day hit home even more than we had anticipated.