saturday, september 5th.
“is something burning?” rob’s cousin laurin asked.
laurin, visiting new york from south carolina, was sitting on the living room couch in the front of our floor-through apartment, waiting for an important phone call. i was hunched over a computer in the office, working. “something is burning” i said, and rushed to the kitchen, heading immediately to the stove. i checked the burners, i moved the teapot aside, was there a potholder lying on top of…?
thick, and black. i could see it through our kitchen window. pouring from the bottom floor of the building directly behind ours.
in the summer our bedroom window is often left wide open. there’s a small, unused courtyard below our fire escape, between the buildings, and a big, beautiful tree – is it an ash? – that's grown taller than any of the former tenement housing surrounding it. on a perfect summer day like today, a gentle cross-breeze blows through our entire apartment and keeps it remarkably cool.
right now that cross breeze was rancid with smoke.
i ran to the bedroom window and looked out. the smoke had been joined by bright orange flames that were reaching up and around the lip of the neighbor's basement window. up and into the courtyard. for a split second i was glassy eyed. the orange from below contrasted with the black steel grating of our fire escape looked more like a firepit grill, i thought, than a terrible emergency.
instantly there was motion and action and movement in our apartment. i called 911. rob and laurin were gathering things up to go outside. i ran to the living room to throw on a pair of shoes. we shifted from “it’s not as bad as it looks” to “we’ve got to get out of here” as rapidly as the fire seemed to grow.
then the screaming started.
“help me! help me! please!!!”
no, that wasn’t real. someone was kidding. they just need to calm down. what were they yelling about? this is just like a movie, i thought.
“oh my god!” rob yelled from the bedroom.
a young woman was now perched on her third story window sill, just across the courtyard, with a man standing behind her, leaning far out on her left. other windows in the building had been blown out, and the strength of the heat coming up toward our own bedroom window was growing.
“i have no fire escape! i’m going to die!” she was screaming.
then i saw her face.
now it was real.
rob was leaning out onto our fire escape, and the woman was edging further out onto the sill of her window, preparing to jump.