Perspective on Priorities

I never intended to write this post. I intended to write about reconnecting with forever friends, and the value of friendships which stand the test of time. Then I got the message from my friend and neighbor Christy.

I just heard from a friend – there is a fire at the complex. Not our building, but a few buildings down from us on the other side of the street.

I was at my sister Caroline’s house, in the process of getting ready for a party. The Bainbridge-Guilford Class of 1990 was celebrating their 25th reunion Saturday night. I could have graduated with the class of 1990, but opted to spend a year as an exchange student in Australia instead. Thankfully, they still invite me to their parties even though I am a member of the class of 1991. I get to celebrate with both classes, which is the most fun.

Caroline lives on a hill in the middle of nowhere outside my hometown of Bainbridge, not quite in neighboring Guilford. Her house, with this amazing view, is one of the last places in the county which does not have cellular service. She does have wi-fi, which I use to remain connected to my everyday life while I visit, when I want to be connected.

View from a hilltop. A row of pine trees is across a road. There are green hills and blue sky with puffy clouds.
The view from Caroline’s driveway.

As I sat with my hair pulled back and mascara on only one eye, I wanted to be connected as concerned friends continued to email me and tag me on Facebook posts.

Denise – this is your complex. Are you OK?

Is this your building on fire? Where are you?

Please tell me if you are alright. There is a big fire in your complex.

Thankfully, I am fine. My apartment is fine. The building across the street is a different story.

While I was reminiscing with friends, catching up on life’s events, four families – my neighbors – lost everything they owned. They escaped with their lives and, thanks to the efforts of local volunteer firefighters, their pets made it out too.

I drove back to my apartment on Sunday not knowing what I would find. Pictures and video failed to prepare me for the feeling of despair which overwhelmed me as I drove down the hill. At first, I only saw the front corner as I turned into my parking lot. When I exited my vehicle, this is what I saw.

Photo of an apartment building shaded by trees. The corner of the building is blackened by smoke.
The view from the sidewalk in front of my apartment.

Then I walked around to the back, and the true scale of the devastation hit me. I cannot imagine what the occupants must have experienced. One of the upstairs tenants was awakened by his young son, asking if he wanted to see fireworks. When he realized what was happening, he got his children out and then assisted a downstairs neighbor who is blind out of her apartment.

A burned out shell of a building. The roof is missing. Charred debris litters the ground.
The rear of the building.
Photo of a charred building destroyed by fire.
For reference, that faint red arrow is pointing to my van, which is parked outside of my building.

I sat in front of my building, watching the parade of curious visitors streaming by in their cars. I never knew so many people did “disaster drive-bys” to stare in horror at the destruction. I would never dream of doing such a thing.

The nonstop flow angered me. These visitors who gawked at the ruined building which had previously housed four families would never have shown interest on any other day. In the span of twenty minutes I counted forty seven cars. I don’t live on a main road. I live in a suburban complex. People don’t usually drive down my street unless they live on it.

Then at 8:00 PM Sunday the fire trucks returned. A smoke alarm in the downstairs apartment was beeping and someone had called 911. I stood with Christy and my other neighbors, watching the firefighters as they crawled into the damaged building through the front window. Thankfully, they did not find any new fire and were gone within an hour.

Our apartment community is not a tight knit group, but this fire has forged new friendships. I have had conversations with neighbors I normally just wave to when we pass in the morning. I learned several neighbors had already gathered donations for the families, who are being assisted by the Red Cross. I am sure there will be other efforts and I know several of us will do as much as we can.

Because all of us are thinking the same thing: it could have been us.

It could have been my neighbors who had to help me out of a burning building. All of my memories from high school – the photos and yearbooks – which I shared with my friends over dinner and drinks, could have gone up in smoke in the blink of an eye.

I have never felt survivors guilt, but I imagine it feels like the emotions running through my head and heart right now. The relief I feel is tinged by sorrow, knowing others are struggling.

I hope this new sense of community with my neighbors lasts. I wonder if people will continue to stand on the corner and talk as they walk their dogs instead of strolling by with their heads down.

As for me, it’s time to update my emergency preparedness plans. I am replacing the batteries in all of my smoke detectors and updating my information with local special needs registries. Small steps, yes. But more than I had done last week.

Because none of us can predict those moments when life changes in a puff of smoke.

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9 thoughts on “Perspective on Priorities

  1. Wow. Dee, this is an excellent piece of writing that really took me to the place in your mind where you’re reeling from how close to home this hit and how very deeply you feel for those affected. Quite a wake-up call for sure and a very good moment to update those emergency plans!

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  2. I have occasionally considered what precious things, or copies of things I should store off site away from my house. There was a stage when I filled a box with such things and stored it at a friend’s house. These days, I guess I feel that if I am meant to lose all my possessions, I must shrug my shoulders. But your posting is a jolt to make sure everything on my computer is in cloud land – its that loss which would affect me most now.

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  3. I’m glad you are safe but so sorry for your neighbours. Fire is devastatingly destructive. How to pick up the pieces of lives touched by it must be a big struggle.
    I have some precious books which I compiled of my parents lives and my own, and sometimes wonder if a fireproof box should house them, but then access to them would not be so easy on an everyday basis. I have made copies of some for family so that is a safeguard to the memories and photographs they contain.

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    • I have begun to think about how I store my treasures and what I consider to be priceless memories. My digital camera was stolen in April, and I am forever grateful I had already downloaded my photos from my March trip to Tasmania.

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