Beverly and I had decided to stay in on Saturday and were comfortably settled by the crackling fireplace, watching the movie “Me and Orson Wells,” when I noticed the flashing red lights out front.
It was frigid, in the teens and getting colder.
We grabbed shoes, coats and gloves and flew to the outside stoop to see what was up. There were three fire trucks and an ambulance blocking traffic on narrow Green Street as firefighters scurried around the brick house opposite us. There were no visible flames, but smoke was slowly seeping from somewhere.
The man and woman who live in the upstairs apartment were coming out of their place, but there was no sign of Kay, the woman who lives downstairs.
Jamie, who lives upstairs, was worried about her two cats and her bird, and the deputy fire chief in charge of the scene reassured her.
I wanted to know where Kay was and where was her dog?
We finally learned from her son that she was not home, and the dog was safe. For the moment, we were relieved.
House fires are a terrible thing and, in a neighborhood like the Stockade, where there is little space between the old housing stock that is so much inviting tinder, the potential for catastrophe is real.
I’ve survived two fires in my life, one in childhood and one as an adult. They are traumatic events, and they leave scars.
In both cases, the fires erupted in the middle of the night as we slept and, in both, we narrowly escaped.
Saturday’s fire, however, involved flames slowly smoldering behind walls, and it erupted early enough in the evening that the people involved were awake. There was more time to react, more time to get out before it became life threatening.
As the firefighters trained bright lights and got out their power saws, Beverly invited the fire victims in out of the cold.
The deputy chief did a survey of the tenants to find out what animals were still inside. The bird and one of the cats upstairs were extricated, but the other cat, frightened of strangers, went into hiding. The little black dog downstairs was delivered to our place in his pen, frightened and confused, but safe.
The bird also arrived, its cage heavily cloaked. I never did see what kind of bird it was because we left the cage covered to keep out the cold air. (I later told myself it was probably some kind of raptor or maybe a small flamingo.)
The cat also was delivered but somehow, with the door opening and closing incessantly, she ran back outside, down the alley and into our back yard.
She never was located that night, and we worried about her out in the frigid cold. Beverly placed a blanket for her in the shed and left the door open slightly. We remained hopeful, knowing that cats are resilient and resourceful creatures.
In the morning, Jamie opened a tin of cat food in the neighbor’s back yard and the telltale sound brought Miss Prissy out from under the compost heap where she’d evidently found refuge from the cold.
The night before, as our impromptu guests warmed themselves in front of the fireplace, a Gazette reporter arrived and interviewed one of them.
Two Gazette photographers also were on the scene, but there were no visible flames, not much drama to record. I was struck by the thought that while we in the news business might view such an event as minor — no one died, the fire didn’t spread to adjoining structures — to the victims it was a life-altering disaster.
Kay, the downstairs tenant in the burning building, arrived at some point for an emotional reunion with her son and her dog.
Later, she came inside and played Beverly’s baby grand. “It’s like a Fellini film,” Beverly whispered, and I had to agree that it was a surreal sort of evening.
Red Cross disaster relief staff arrived and thoroughly vetted the fire victims, arranging temporary shelter for them and seeing to their other temporal needs.
It was close to midnight when things settled down and our guests had been allowed back into their apartments to collect essentials and then left.
We spent a little time rehashing the night’s events, and felt good that we had been able to help in a small way.
I never did get back to “Me and Orson Wells.” Somehow I’d lost interest.