What I Learned From the Gayborhood Fire

What remains of the construction pad that caught fire. Picture by the author.

What remains of the construction pad that caught fire. Picture by the author.

At 4:30 am, the fire alarms went off. I knew this wasn’t a drill.

I luckily had a pair of sweatpants and Chucks by my bed and quickly threw them on before I walked down the twenty flights of stairs of the fire escape. Come the fifth floor, I could smell the fire, and by the time I got to my apartment complex’s lobby, I could see the smoke.

The flames coming off the construction site that was set ablaze were massive, unlike anything I’ve ever seen “live” before in my life. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of videos of news reports and crazy movies of fire ripping through landscapes, but this was utterly real and everyone knew it.

The writer in me immediately started taking pictures and taking note of the people: There were young women dressed in nothing but t-shirts, men walking around in basketball shorts, tons of cat carriers. Some young undergrad students who lived in the building were crying hysterically, not because they were hurt or because their apartments were damaged, but out of part-fear, part-hyper sensitivity. One woman carried her guitar on her back.

Residents displaced in the early morning hours.

Residents displaced in the early morning hours.

At 5:30, I was relieved that the local Starbucks opened, mostly because I had to pee. Badly. But also, it was a place to regroup and grab a coconut milk latte, a luxury that I all too often take for granted. Shortly after, Septa sent emergency buses to the scene to hold folks, and the Red Cross sent a van with water, blankets, and hot chocolate.

It become increasingly obvious that the apartment building in which I live, the one that was evacuated, was not actually on fire. However, the site of the fire was so badly out of control that firefighters had to break out windows in my building facing the South side of the city to fight the fire next door. That was the hold-up, and a big one at that. Around 7:30, we were all escorted to the 12th Street Gym to seek shelter. I, of course, did what I normally do in a huge tragedy: I went to Target.

It’s funny what you do when you think you’re in survival mode. When I arrived at the store, I grabbed a basket and just started putting stuff in it: t-shirts and underwear and nasal spray and antibaterial gel and toothpaste. I even purchased in a metal bust of a deer for reasons that I still can’t fully explain.

While paying for my random buys, my friend, who lives in my building, texted me that officials were letting residents in one floor at a time to grab a bag of belongings. I hightailed it back to my apartment, where I was lead to my floor by an L&I agent who timed us: We had five minutes to pack a bag. Again, survival instinct kicked in: I took my blue overnight bag from Banana Republic and threw in all kinds of things: shirts and shorts and jeans and pumpkin soap (I have no clue why) and made it out of my apartment with one minute to spare.

There are a few things I did learn from the fire debacle. One is that people are a lot more resilient than we think. I am extremely lucky that my family lives no more than 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia, so I had a place to stay, recover, and take a much-needed shower (and, goodness, am I ever so grateful for my parents). A lot of my neighbors didn’t have that luxury. My friend, who I offered numerous times to join me but he didn’t feel comfortable leaving, kept texting me that he had to “poop.”

“Just go to Starbucks,” I said.

He refused and didn’t get back into his apartment until close to 5 pm. That’s resilience!

The other thing I learned is that people really can be kind. I can’t count how many texts and messages I got from friends about my safety, if my belongings were okay (they’re fine), if I needed anything. The apartment management was stellar with the entire situation. Lots of local businesses opened their doors a little early for tired refugees and offered restrooms and snacks. In short, sometimes tragedy shows the best of people.

Late last evening, I was finally able to occupy my building, which was still badly damaged on the first several floors. The worst part about my floor? It smells like a really gross campfire, but that’s just about it. The folks in the lower levels, however, have a lot more that they have to worry about, especially if their units had windows busted out, but from what I know, no one was injured or hurt, which is amazing.

When my head finally hit my pillow last night, I was exhausted, but also overwhelming grateful. That was, again, confirmed this morning, when I finally got outside to see the damage next door. The picture at the top of this piece shows what is left of the construction site that was ablaze. As I looked at the remains, it became all too clear that things can change in an instant. And that sometimes, the kindness of strangers is truly remarkable.