Burning Inside

If I hadn’t overslept that day, everything I care about would be gone forever.

I very rarely oversleep. In fact, even on those mornings when we have the day off from responsibilities and can sleep in, I still wake up at sunrise.  And once the sun is up, so am I.  There is no chance of falling back asleep… at least, not in our bed. (on the sofa perhaps, while waiting for the coffee to brew) Even if we use sleeping pills, I can’t seem to snooze past 7:00 AM.  So the fact that I didn’t wake up that morning until 9:00 AM is highly unusual.  Turns out it was the will of the universe…

The smell hit me first.  It was a weird odor, something I couldn’t identify but yet it seemed familiar all the same.  I walked from the bed to the doorway in a confused daze, searching our brain for some explanation for the strange scent which tickled our nostrils.  When I opened the bedroom door, there seemed to be a haze in the air.  In the morning we often have blurry vision, so we dismissed this fog at first as nothing more than sleepy eyes.  Going up the hallway, however, the haze grew into a cloud of gray smoke which got thicker and thicker as we proceeded.  Once in the living room, I was stunned to find the smoke was so dense from floor to ceiling that I was almost unable to see the adjoining kitchen.  We could barely make out any shapes. I wondered if this was all just hallucination; luckily someone inside me screamed that it was not.

Part of us recognized that something was terribly wrong, and we began to dash from room to room, looking for flames, for a source of the smoke.  I distinctly remember thinking that the smoke detectors weren’t working properly, and it was at that same moment that they began to buzz loudly.  The deafening noise paired with the smoke made the situation seem even more terrifying.  Everything gets foggy-no pun intended-in our memory after that.

We ran to the bedroom and woke up our husband with a series of loud screams, something along the lines of “Wake the fuck up! The house is on fire!”  He was surprisingly calm and took charge of the situation.  He searched the house but could find no fire. Yet he knew there must be one, somewhere, or else we wouldn’t be standing in a smoke-filled room.  He was very cool and collected as he called 911.  He told the operator that we seemed to have a fire but couldn’t find it.  I very clearly remember him asking, “You’re not going to send everybody, are you?”…and then of course, they did.

Three large firetrucks, lights flashing, sirens wailing, came tearing into our yard only minutes after the call.  A smaller firetruck followed, with the police next in line and an ambulance bringing up the rear.  Firemen jumped off the trucks and pulled on their jumpsuits; this was something we’d only seen in movies. We watched from the driveway, fascinated by all of this action. The fire chief was first on the scene, and as soon as he arrived, he told us that he smelled burning plastic. Plastic! Of course! That bizarre odor we’d been smelling was like the aroma of burning trash bags.  Some fireman charged into the house, going room to room. Another one went over to the garage entrance of my husband’s tool room; when he opened the door, smoke poured out of the small room in a thick billowing cloud.  My husband wondered aloud if the hot water heater was on fire.  But no, that wasn’t it. The smoke was pouring out of every vent in every room of the house.  It seemed to take a long time for the firemen to locate the fire, but in truth it was probably only minutes.  We heard someone yelling, “We found it!” from around the other side of the house, and at last it felt like we could breathe again.

Under our house is a large crawlspace.  When it rains hard, the area used to flood. So we had a sump pump installed, which came on automatically whenever it rained and pumped the water out from under the house, keeping it dry.  The floor is dirt, but the whole area has recently-in the past 2 years-been treated with anti-mold chemicals and plastic sheeting was installed over the floor and walls.  In the days before the fire, it had rained a lot, so the sump pump was working overtime.  I guess it was too much, for the sump pump motor gave out and caught fire.  The horrible smell in the house was the toxic fumes of the burning plastic sheeting.

The fire had started in the corner of the far end of the house–directly beneath my husband’s toy collection room (which is worth more than our house)–and it had spread outward, toward our bedroom.  According to the men who were under our home, it was pretty bad.  Everything beneath our home was melted or burned to ash.  All the plastic sheeting is gone now. The fireman sprayed their giant hoses into the doorway of the space and doused the fire.  Upon inspection, they found that a water leak under the bathtub is what kept the fire contained.  The dripping water kept the fire from spreading too quickly, and the plastic smoldered for a while rather than igniting into tall flames.  So our lives were spared by a leaky tub.  After further inspection, the firemen deemed the heating and air conditioning system unsafe due to a potential electrical short.  They cut the power to our AC until repairs can be made.

Finally, it was over and we vaguely remember signing some papers and agreeing to supply the fire department with our homeowner’s information the next morning.  Firemen stripped off their sooty coveralls and climbed aboard their trucks. The paramedics questioned whether we were OK but Husband assured them we were fine and so they left.  People in the neighborhood went back into their houses, having come outside to watch the spectacle.  At last, everyone was gone except for our aunt, whom we honestly don’t remember calling but we must’ve because she was there.

Then she spoke and everything began to sink in.  Mom had been admitted into the hospital for severe anemia and pneumonia, so she hadn’t been home at the time of the fire.  This was an enormous stroke of luck, for she has serious lung problems and would never have survived those toxic plastic fumes.  Then my aunt reminded us of something we’d never even considered before–our mother is on oxygen, and we have tanks in almost every room.  Had the flames, or the heat risen any higher, those tanks would’ve exploded.  The firemen told us we were very lucky, and now it was slapping me in the face just how very lucky we were indeed.

If I had gotten up at my usual time, 7:00 AM, the fire wouldn’t have been burning long enough for the smoke to fill the house.  I wouldn’t have known anything was amiss.  I would’ve left for the hospital to visit my mother, and my husband would never have woken up.  He gets up at 10:00 every morning and by that time he would’ve been overcome by the smoke and the house would’ve been engulfed. He keeps thanking me repeatedly for saving his life.  We didn’t do anything. Hell, we couldn’t even remain calm. We were freaked the hell out.  We were excited and talkative and animated and uptight and scared and basically just a basket case.  Kellie does NOT handle stress very well. No. Not at all.

Since the fire, we’ve been unable to sleep through the night.  We wake up over and over again in a state of fear.  We see smoke constantly, and smell it as well.  When our husband cooks, the steam rising from the pot on the stove is enough to throw us into a panic. Candles terrify us now. We are having more panic attacks throughout the day than we’ve ever had before.  We’ve been having chest pains and headaches, and we throw up frequently.  Our shrink tells us we have PTSD.  She doesn’t know how long this will last…and I don’t know how long I can take it.  But I do know this–my oversleeping was a blessing in disguise.  Thank God the alarm clock didn’t go off that morning.

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” ― Cormac McCarthy

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