After the fire
Hearing this sound at 8:00 in the morning is not unusual in our neighborhood. Many tend to hit their horn instead of a doorbell when picking up a friend. We’re resigned to it, though it sometimes inspires my husband to sing “In the ghetto…”
This was different, though. This person was leaning on their horn. Like it was malfunctioning. Or something was wrong.
I went to our second-floor bedroom window that looks out on 22nd Street and glared with my best how-dare-you-some-folks-are-sleeping look. I saw a white minivan parked in front of my house and a Mexican woman standing outside it who seemed agitated. She was arguing with the driver and pointing at the house next door. The horn continued to blare. I wondered if it was stuck and she was trying to tell the driver how to fix it.
Her eyes met mine and she seemed embarrassed, though I think by now I looked more curious than angry. She hurried across the street and the van started driving off in another direction, horn still blaring. What the heck was going on?
A few people started gathering in the street. Sirens blared and seemed to close in on my block. This was a bigger response than I would have expected for one malfunctioning car horn. Then I realized it was more serious than that.
Two uniformed policemen rushed down the sidewalk in front of my house, and as they did, the morning sun cast a shadow over them that looked like a roaring dragon had reared itself up on the roof of the apartment building two doors down. In seconds, my brain registered “That’s smoke” and I ran toward my bathroom windows, which look onto that building.
Oh no. Oh shit.
Black smoke was pouring out of the top back corner apartment. As I watched, the glass in the windows shattered and rained down on the alley below. Orange flames started to lick the top of the window frame, and impossibly fast, filled the whole window and reached skyward. I snapped a picture (see above).
Get out. I have to get out. That fire wouldn’t make it over here. Would it? No, too far away. Okay, but how are the firemen going to reach that back corner? My back yard. Get the gate key. I’m in my pajamas. Fuck it.
I stuck some slippers on, grabbed my purse, and ran out the front door. By now there were several fire trucks on the corner of Broadway, and 22nd Street was blocked off. I unlocked the gate to my side yard, swung it open, then joined my neighbors Christiane and Phil on the sidewalk, who were standing with a group of people near a policeman. “I hope nobody’s in there,” Christiane said.
My yard wasn’t needed, though, as by this time, a firetruck ladder reached from the street to the roof. As we watched, fireman turned on hoses both inside the building and on the roof and trained them on the blaze in the corner. The flames changed to whitish smoke, but darker smoke billowed out through the entire top floor. There would probably be a lot of smoke damage there, and water damage below. “They just painted that building last year, too. What a shame,” Christiane said. I agreed. It had been an awful grey with pink trim, and was restuccoed to a restful moss green with brown trim. The work had taken months.
Suddenly an orange tongue of flame leaped out from the downspout at the corner of the building. We started pointing and shouting, “It’s in the gutter! Fire in the gutter!” The firemen saw it and put it out quickly.
Someone came over and said to a young couple standing with us, “They want us on the corner across the street to do a headcount.” Only then did I realize that these two folks lived in that building. I didn’t recognize them at all. I tried to think if I knew anyone who lived in that building. I could only recall one woman, a friend of a friend, who probably moved out years ago. Have I really lived here 10 years and met so few of my neighbors?
I remembered that my mother was coming soon to pick me up for a hiking trip in the desert, and I pulled out my cell phone to call her. My hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t dial. I took a deep breath, then decided to go inside and call from my land line, where I had her on speed dial. If she turned the corner unprepared and saw all these fire trucks, it would probably scare the hell out of her.
I reached my mom and let her know I was okay. The fire in the downspout revived briefly, but was put out again. I took a few more pictures of the smoking building from my bathroom vantage point, then some more of the assembled emergency response from my front window. Like a good citizen journalist, I immediately posted my photos to Flickr, tweeted the link to them, and also emailed it to a friend at NBC 7/39. By now my mom had arrived, so I threw on some clothes and we left for the desert. I hoped no one had died or been hurt.
It’s two hours to Ocotillo Wells, where we planned to look for wildflowers, so I worked my Twitter network for news of the fire while my mom drove. Within a few minutes friends told me that one person had died. This was not surprising, given ferocity of the fire I’d seen coming through that window, but the response had been so quick I’d had hope. At the time I’d guessed they had it out in about 3 minutes, but I was counting from when I noticed the fire, which was admittedly later than others. Also, panic and adrenaline had my head ringing like a bell, so my judgement of time was off.
The deceased was an 83-year-old man named Sam Taylor who had lived there more than 30 years. I don’t think I knew him, though I’d been living just a few hundred feet from him for 10 years.
Today, all is calm again. There’s a distinct smell of charred wood in the air, and the fire is the headline on the San Diego Union-Tribune (“Fire kills man in ‘brownout’ area”). The article discusses the possibility that a cost-cutting plan recently enacted which idles up to 8 fire engines a day contributed to the man’s death by delaying the fire department’s response time.
Clearly, more investigation is needed to find if that is true or not. They’d have to find out exactly what killed the man (smoke? fire? something else?) and when. They’d have to discover the cause of the fire and how long it smoldered before it was discovered. If he died before the first 911 call was made, then response time was not a factor.
If the brownout did contribute to the tragedy, however, that would be ironic. Living on Broadway means you hear sirens several times a day. There is a fire station 3 blocks away on 25th Street, and its engine and ambulance usually barrel down Broadway to respond to emergencies. It’s a nuisance you get used to, along with the planes that pass overhead to land at nearby Lindbergh Field, but it used to comfort me that rescue was so close if anything happened on our block.
Was my sense of safety an illusion? Or could nothing have saved him, and his death is being used to pressure the city into giving money it doesn’t have back to the SDFD?
I hope someone finds out soon and does the right thing. And I hope the decision is made based on facts, not fear, speculation, grief, or political pressure.