(continued from part two)
once outside, we could see the entire block had been shut down. six, seven firetrucks surrounded us. men running, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs. fire hoses. pickaxes. and smoke. smoke rising up and over the top of our building. (could it now be from our building? was our bedroom on fire? no. the flames couldn't have spread that fast. they couldn't have.)
we walked around the corner to get a better view of the burning building.
gawking. pointing. shaking heads. the experts spouting off about what happened and why, the lurkers listening in – leaning in – to get the story. "apartment building on 96th burned today," they'd say at dinner, or at the bar later. "i was right there. such a mess." we became part of them. we stood. we stood with everyone else, and watched.
i saw no flames.
but i could see faces. faces of men rushing into the building with seemingly no fear. faces black with soot and red from the heat. "he looks sunburned," rob said, referring to a man who had just come out of the building. there were dozens upon dozens. and suddenly i had a newfound appreciation for them: the firemen.
“i’ve lived in that building since 1983” the man next to me said, fiddling with the police tape stretched across the width of the sidewalk, there to keep the gawkers at a safe distance. “i'm on the top floor. i’m the only one left with an actual floor-through. in the 90’s the owner divided all the other apartments in half and rented each as two separate units. that meant all the apartments in back were without a fire escape. they have no fire escape. which is illegal.”
the woman screaming was right. if she hadn't jumped, or been rescued, she could have died. she was a young woman, not quite 30. she might have survived a jump – a broken limb, maybe. an elderly person probably wouldn't have made it.
i wondered again if the man who appeared in the courtyard, urging the young woman not to jump, was in fact the building's owner. where had he come from?
"that's him right there," rob said. "the guy in the blue t-shirt, wearing the tacky gold chain. that's the guy who was in the courtyard."
it wasn't, in fact, a fireman who brought the ladder. it was this man right in front of me. he was wearing a tight blue t-shirt with the words "neighborhood construction something-or-other" written across the back in a bright white design that included what appeared to be a new york city skyline, i wasn't sure. this was the man from the courtyard, sitting a few feet away from me now, talking to two firemen. explaining what happened, i guessed. moments earlier an older asian woman had been reading him the riot act.
i looked back at rob. "is he the owner, do you think?"
“those tenants are going to own that building” another voice interrupted. “that owner is going to jail.”
"oh look!" a woman from behind me said. "look, they're rescuing someone!"