fire and brimstone.

I picked up Marie and Gillian at the Chinatown bus station around 9:30. We drove home, and I parked my car in front of a condemned house.I live in Port Richmond, so collapsing buildings and boarded up windows are an integral part of the landscape. Earlier that week, I had learned from my block captain that someone had been illegally squatting in the particular house. For the first time ever, I saw a cop pull a gun on someone on its front porch. Later I would hear that up to 15 people were dwelling in the ramshackle structure.

We popped open some Yuenglings, poured the standard accompanying glasses of Jameson’s and cooked up a batch of Smiley fries (perhaps the most delicious thing your oven could ever produce).

Ahhh…finally a chance to relax after a hectic day/week. I heard someone outside setting off fireworks. I complained to my friends about this. All week one of my neighbors had been enjoying his own pyrotechnic show directly in front of my house and car, starting around 10 pm every night. It just seemed really dangerous! Of course, I was/am too much of a fraidy-cat to say anything to the neighbor, but I was nonetheless upset. Just as I was about to down my glass of whiskey, someone knocked on my window. I ignored it, because generally a knock on my door means solicitation. But then…another knock. “Move your car! The house is on fire!”

Confused, I ran outside with my car keys. In fact, there was smoke everywhere. I ran to my car and jumped in to the driver’s seat. Just as I turned the key in the ignition, I looked over at the house three doors away from mine. It was engulfed in flames. I should mention that fire is one of my greatest fears. A herculean effort was required to stay calm. As I drove down to the end of the block, the smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see a thing.

When I ran back to my house, Gillian and Marie were waiting outside. None of us were sure what we should do…so we went back inside. My living room was filling with smoke, so I closed the windows. We agreed that someone should call 911. It seemed that if firemen had not yet arrived, then no one had reported the fire. At this point, I was becoming incredibly disoriented…a product of smoke inhalation and fear. Just as I fumbled for my phone, the street filled with fire trucks.

A survey of my street showed that everyone in the vicinity of the burning house had evacuated to the end of the street, including my next-door neighbors. We agreed that we should leave the house. Purses, cell phones, and keys were gathered. We left our cocktails behind. It just seemed unethical to bring them to a fire. As we left the house, we saw that the fire had spread to two more houses. Electrical lines snapped and sent sparks flying in our direction. We screamed. Somehow Gillian was able to pull herself together to take a photo (above…the green framed windows/door are my house). All photos relating to the fire were taken by her.

We joined all of my neighbors at the end of the block. I realized that everyone had brought their pets. Should we get Simon and Grace? It seemed as if we should. After all, this fire was only a few houses away from mine. We decided to rescue the cats. Firemen were yelling at us, telling us that it was too dangerous. Gillian and Marie began to look for the cats (both were hiding behind furniture, aware that something terrible was happening).

I had to locate the cat carrier. Was it upstairs? I was fairly certain it was either in the spare bedroom or my shoe closet. The second floor of my house was filled with smoke. My eyes were burning so horribly that I could barely see. I was coughing, coughing, and coughing. All of the things I learned in elementary school regarding smoke and fire safety were completely forgotten. I made the mistake of looking out my back windows, where I saw the fire devouring back yards. Panic! After several frenzied moments of door slamming and running into furniture, I realized the carrier was in the basement.

We stuffed Grace into the carrier with minimal effort. She is a true peach. Simon, on the other hand, was too large and frightened to cooperate. Gillian heroically emptied the clothes from her duffle bag and tried to cram him in there. No luck. Marie was scratched, we were screaming, and frames were falling off the walls. Simon would not come out from under the sofa. The firemen were telling us we had to leave.

We had no choice but to leave Simon behind. The three of us were devastated about this. Just as we walked out of my house (with Grace), one of the houses exploded. No exaggeration! Later we would learn that there were several oxygen tanks in there, as the resident had a lot of health problems. The explosion sent my fear level through the roof. I stumbled to the end of the block with my friends. For the next 30 minutes, I was in full panic mode. What if my house burned down and all of my belongings were destroyed? Even worse, what if Simon was killed in the fire?

The street was filled with a flood of water. At least three news helicopters were flying overhead. The street and surrounding blocks were filled with fire trucks and police cars. Firemen from all over the city had arrived.

Firemen everywhere!

Grace in her carrier. She shivered and cried the entire time. Fortunately, she is a happy-go-lucky sort of lady, so she quickly returned to her sociable self when we returned home.

Our wet feet.

After about 30 minutes, the fire was diminished to a manageable level. We were able to return to my house. We discovered Simon upstairs, hiding under the futon in the spare room. Despite the cloud of smoke, he seemed okay. We grabbed our beers (and the unharmed Smiley fries) and sat down on the stoop. The inside of my house was too smoky and hot for habitation.

It took the fireman hours to finally put out the fire (it still re-ignited the next morning) and pack up their hoses. In fact, the hoses consumed a lot of time. Gradually we began to befriend the various fireman. Two things we learned:
1. The firehouse no longer has a pole. Apparently the powers-that-be deemed it too dangerous.

2. Firemen wear pants with their names sewn on the butts.

One of the firemen asked me, “Why is a girl like you living up here?” This is a good question…I hear it from my friends, family, and near strangers on a regular basis. I’ll definitely tackle it in a separate blog entry. This fireman turned out to be our favorite. After I tipsily complimented his muscles by saying, “My friend says you have really nice big muscles,” he blushed. We talked to him for a while (he was the one who told as about the fire pole). He is a rescuer, hence the big muscles. It’s his job to look for people caught inside burning buildings. Pretty impressive!

We were able to convince the firemen to pose for a photo with us.

I like how thrilled Gillian and I appear. Meanwhile, my face was streaked with soot and tears (I found myself crying in panic after we couldn’t evacuate Simon).

I thanked the firemen for saving our block, my house, my cat, etc.

I also was able to bond with my next door neighbor, a lady cop. She has been on the force for 28 years! She was helping all of the displaced residents find temporary housing. What an amazing woman!

In the end, three hours were burned to rubble. A fourth house is virtually uninhabitable (yet the residents are still living there). The house next to mine suffered a lot of smoke damage and flooding. Yet my house was unscathed (except for a lingering smoked meat smell).

Some of the end results.

I went to bed at 3 am, after washing the soot from my ears and hair. Gillian and Marie have a really great story to tell about their visit to Philadelphia. And I have a lot of thinking to do regarding a potential move to a new neighborhood. More about that later…Rocket Cat is closing and it’s time for me to go home.

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