Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My House Burned Down Today - 26 Years Ago

Friday, April 23rd, 1982, approximately 3:35pm.

I was a happy go-lucky 10-year old rushing home from school to grab my duffle bag and head out on a weekend Girl Scout camping trip. Running across my front lawn, I smelled fire, but couldn't figure out where it was coming from.

When I got in the front door, there was my mom standing in the kitchen and I told her I smelled something on fire outside. Although nothing could be smelled inside, together, we headed out to find the source of the smell. At just that moment, Dave came to the front door saying he smelled something.

Together we headed towards the backyard, thinking we'd find someone burning leaves or some one's shed on fire. All the way around the house, we could smell something, but never saw anything on fire. As we crossed the front yard in front of the garage, the burning smell was very strong.

[Now here's what you should NEVER do if your house is on fire]

I'm not sure who's idea it was, but when we reached the garage door, together, the three of us lifted it up only to find a small fire in the back left corner of the garage. Immediately, we slammed the door. Mom told us to stay outside as she ran inside the house and called the fire department (I don't think 911 existed back then). I ran inside and grabbed my green stuffed rabbit I'd had since I was either 3 or 4. I have no idea where Dave went.

Most of what unfolded the rest of the day is a blur in my mind, but very specific memories have stuck in my mind. I have no idea where Mom and Dave were as the firemen did their jobs, but I ended up across the street watching from a neighbor's driveway.

After it became apparent that the fire was not just some small thing that could easily be put out, someone told me to go inside the neighbor's house and call my dad. He was in Chicago, easily 2 hours away with the train commute, working at Wieboldt's. I will never forget standing in Sue Presutti's family room watching my house burn through her picture window just as my dad answered the phone. "Dad, the house is in FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!" And then nothing but screams, shrieks, and sobs from me as a huge fireball flew out of the garage and all the firemen hit the ground. Mrs. Presutti took the phone from me and probably explained to Dad what was going on and that we all got out safely, but that he needed to come home immediately, but I honestly don't remember that part.

The next thing I remember is being outside shaking and crying uncontrollably as I watched the flames with no idea where Mom and Dave were.

At some point, my friend Kristi showed up (she only lived a block away, so she probably could see the fire above the trees) and we walked to the park. I don't know if anyone even knew I was gone. And I don't know how long it took them to put the fire out.

When we returned, the fire was out, but the firemen were still there. We were lucky. The fire destroyed the garage, attic and their contents, but almost nothing else. I finally saw the inside of the house a few days later and most of the rest of the damage was from the smoke and the water. Smoke and water damage were fairly extensive, however.

The cause of the fire has never been determined, but my assumption has always been some kind of electrical issue. That's what my parents have always told me, but even they don't know for sure. That said, initially Dave and I were blamed for playing with matches by one of the firemen. He tried to get us to confess to playing with matches, but we hadn't (and didn't, for the record) and everyone agreed we had been at school.

We were out of our house for about 6 months and for much of the time, we lived at the Arlington Park Hilton (now Sheraton), which was a blast. The first few weeks, however, at least for me, weren't so settled. I floated around between my friends Kristi and Amy, even the night of the fire. I'm truly blessed that my friends were so welcoming and generous. It was a difficult time for me, but knowing my friends had my back made things better.

All in all, my family and I were really fortunate. If the fire had occurred at night, we never would have gotten out. The one smoke detector we had was located back by the bedrooms and the firemen told my parents that it didn't go off until they were already on the roof with chain saws! Sure we lost things in the fire (and if I had thought ahead, I would have scanned the pics of the aftermath, but I didn't), but we lost nothing of consequence. Our family pictures were saved. Mom, Dad, Dave and I were all safe and healthy.

All of that said, I don't think anything has ever been the same. I've always been a bit jumpy around fire and still go back to that day when I smell that indescribable smell. Before I go to bed every night, I check the door going to the garage to make sure it's not hot.

About 2 years ago in the middle of the day, the smoke detector started going off. I couldn't smell anything and ran around the house feeling doors. I grabbed Betsey and Ross and got them out of the house and called 911. The firemen showed up and couldn't find anything except a malfunctioning smoke detector (not one needing new batteries - an actual malfunctioning one). I was embarrassed, but it's never far from my mind, especially today.

I never did go on that Girl Scout camping trip. In fact, I've never camped again and have no desire. When I think of camping, I think of a weekend at the Hilton. I've always wondered where that little bit of "high maintenance" in me came from, but now I think I know.

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