Updated: Feb 23, 2020
Our 4th of July this year included the kind of fireworks you hope to never see. Below is an accounting I wrote shortly after the event. Though I'm sure I've mixed up the order and details in places, I tried to keep it as true to the actual events that took place, including what I was thinking at the time. The neighbors left me a flattering card that brought tears to my eyes. They call me a hero, but I'm just thankful everyone was safe.
This is my first attempt at writing first person, present tense.
4th of July, 2018, around 10:30 pm. I lay down in bed to the intermittent sound of fireworks exploding in the distance. Firecrackers snap in short bursts.
I’m tired. Even the sharp interruptions can’t keep me awake. I drift to sleep.
I wake to the sound of more firecrackers.
Odd. The crackling is constant. It’s still dark outside. I don’t need to look at the clock to know it’s very late—or early. Fireworks normally die down after midnight.
Something isn’t right. I go downstairs to the second level of our three-story house.
The crackling is louder. Through the French window at the top of our front door, I see bright orange flickering light. I unlock the deadbolt and open the door.
Not 10 feet away, from the concrete below all the way to the top of the third story, the front side of my neighbor’s house is engulfed in orange fire.
I run upstairs.
“Fire! Fire!” I’m shouting as loud as I can. I run into our bedroom. It’s dark. The light switch is keyed to the overhead fan, which is already on. I don’t have the presence of mind to find the pull chain and don’t want to waste precious time fumbling for it, so I don’t bother. “Fire!” I shout at Louise. “Fire! Get up! Fire!” Once I see her sit up, I run to the back of the house and open the bedroom door of my oldest daughter, Emily. “Fire! Fire!” I open my youngest daughter’s door. “Fire! Fire!” I yell into Abby’s room.
Louise is behind me. The kids gather in the hall, all of us in our pajamas. We run downstairs.
“Call 911,” I yell.
Louise trips on her way to the kitchen. She’s sprawled on her stomach. Before I can think to help, she’s on her feet with a phone in her hand. I don’t know where she got it.
“Yes,” Louise says into the phone, her voice unsteady, “our neighbor’s house is on fire.”
My family is safe. 911 has been notified. Everyone’s calm.
But the fire is still raging.
It has to be put out. Every second counts.
I run down to the first level and open the garage. The hose is inside the garage, on the other side of the car. I sprint around the car and turn the spigot. Water engorges the hose. Good.
I go to the front of the garage. A long-handled nozzle protrudes from the top of a small cart, where the garden hose is wound around a wheel with a handle. I grab the nozzle and make a sharp right, ducking under the wooden stairs that lead up to the front door to the side of our house facing our neighbor’s.
Orange. Everything is bright orange. Heat washes over me. Two blazing infernos are under the stairs—one near the house, the other closer to me, where the stairs and the concrete meet. The one closest to the house is an unrecognizable pile of flames. The one closer to me is some sort of appliance that’s half burned and still burning. The wooden stairs leading up to the front door are ablaze. The small part of the house that protrudes under the stairs, about the size of a small shed, is roaring, especially the small shingle roof on top. Flames climb all the way up the second floor and billow around the small 3rd floor outcropping. The flames are blocking their front door, but the door and frame aren’t on fire yet. I see no movement inside, nor do I see anyone out back. The third-floor master bedroom light is on. I don’t know if my neighbors are awake. Even if I scream, I don’t know if they’ll hear me over the roar of the fire.
The fire. I have to extinguish the fire.
I turn on the hose and start spraying. A solid stream of water. Good. The nozzle is old. If it was on spray, I don’t know if I could have switched it to stream without breaking it.
I start closest to the house to keep the flames from spreading, then I move to what looks like the source of the fire, the 4’ x 2’ x 1’ pile of something under the stairs. I’ve never dealt with a fire this big. I don’t even know if my small garden hose is up to the task, but it doesn’t matter. The fire appears to be limited to the outside of the house. I don’t know when the fire department will arrive, but by the time they do, the house and the occupants could be in serious danger. I keep spraying.
Seconds pass. The fire isn’t responding. Shit. I keep spraying.
Flames are flickering down in places. It’s working. I concentrate on the roof of the small outcropping under the stairs. The fire no longer reaches the third level. I move the stream under the stairs to the still-blazing inferno. One of my neighbors’ three cars is backed up against the house, right next to the stairs. The rear bumper is melted. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know there’s gas in the car, that I’m standing ten feet away, and that it could explode, but my primal need to put the fire out is greater. There’s no one else around. I’m the only one with a hose. If I keep spraying, maybe—hopefully—the car won’t explode. I concentrate the water stream on the intense inferno under the stairs and on the side of the car.
Slowly, slowly, the flaming pile under the stairs dies down. Plastic runs from the pile down the concrete in molten, bubbling rivulets.
Smoke. Much more smoke than before. Embers glow on the stairs, but there are no flames. The far side of the pile under the stairs is still on fire. My water stream can’t reach it. To put the remaining flames out, I have to wade through the smoke—right next to the smoldering car. I take a deep breath, hold it, and walk under the stairs.
Water drips on my head and down my back. Smoke engulfs me but doesn’t sting my eyes as much as I expected. I spray until the pile is extinguished, then back up a few feet and spray the remaining embers on the stairs, on top and underneath.
A fire alarm goes off. It’s only then I realize that it’s the first one I’d heard.
Movement from my neighbors’ backyard. They’re up. They’re safe. Thank God. I keep spraying—top, bottom, anywhere I see embers. I don’t know if the fire has spread inside the walls, and I’m not going to take a chance.
A policeman appears next to me. I’m still spraying. He doesn’t offer to help, nor does he offer any advice. I’m annoyed but not surprised. That’s how it is. I may not know what I’m doing, but I’m not going to risk my neighbor losing his house. The officer isn’t helping, but he isn’t stopping me, either, so I ignore him and keep spraying.
Two fire trucks arrive. The firefighters assess the situation while I continue to spot-extinguish embers. They don’t say anything to me, either. They offer no advice and let me continue doing my thing. Again, I find it odd—aren’t these the experts? On the other hand, maybe I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, so I continue hosing the house and the pile down.
Glass falls from the 2nd story window, just to the left of the front door. It crashes on the stairs and shatters at my feet. Belatedly, I back up.
“Yeah, careful,” the police officer says. “Pieces of the house are going to continue to fall down.”
Thanks, Captain Obvious. I keep my mouth shut and back farther away.
“Go check it out,” one of the firefighters says to another.
“No way,” the other firefighter says. “It might explode.”
They’re both standing farther away than I am. Neither has told me to move, nor addressed me in any way.
Eventually, the firefighters bring their hoses out. A few embers have reappeared at the top of the stairs, just under the door. They hose it down with professional-grade water pressure—just in time to not matter.
A firefighter makes his way up the stairs. Everything is charred. The stairs look like spent firewood. The firefighters are careful to step on the sides, where support is greatest. The stairs hold. The firefighter tries the front door. It doesn’t open. He looks down at one of his comrades. “Kick it down?”
“Yeah,” his companion says.
The firefighter turns around and back kicks the door. Nothing happens. I would have been surprised if it did. We have sturdy doors designed to withstand the elements of Pacifica. A few more kicks, however, and the door opens.
My neighbor appears, dressed in sweatshirt and sweatpants, which are probably his pajamas. He’s calm for a man whose house was recently burning. We stare at the damage together. From the sixth step on to the top, the stairs are charred coal. The outcropping wall under the stairs is charred. The wall in front of the door is completely black. Soot stains run all the way up the third story wall.
My neighbor thanks me for putting the flames out. I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t my house on fire. Taking credit for any sort of heroism seems inappropriate, so I just nod.
The rest of his family comes out—his wife, three sons, and his son’s girlfriend. One son is holding his mother, who’s crying. She comes over and thanks me. I still don’t know what to say, so I just nod and give her a brief hug. I say something about being glad that it wasn’t worse. That’s when it finally hits me that the entire roaring inferno was contained before the fire department arrived. It had only been a few minutes, but I dreaded to think how much worse it would have been had I waited.
The policeman asks the neighbor to move the car. I remind him that it was on fire, and there are still embers glowing on the stairs. He insists it has to be moved, so my neighbor does. The side of the car, normally silver, is deep russet where the fire touched it. The rear tail light and bumper are melted. The rear tire is flat. All said, it’s probably still drivable.
One of the firefighters grabs a chainsaw. There’s a hint of a smile on his face. I can’t blame him.
My other neighbor appears, the one who lives in the house attached to ours. He watches with the same solemnity. None of our other neighbors appear. Someone comments on it. Apparently two police cars and two firetrucks at 4:30 am aren’t enough to pique their interest.
The firefighter with the chainsaw cuts the stairs above the outcropping, then cuts a hole next to the front door with a Sawzall, where the flames were the worst. At some point, the once-flaming pile was moved to the middle of the driveway. Thin tendrils of smoke still drift from it.
As an afterthought, I offer my neighbors something to drink. They refuse. I go into the garage and grab some water bottles anyway, which they accept. I mention to my neighbor that the pile closest to the house seemed to be the source of the fire. He wasn’t surprised. He said they’d had a BBQ earlier that day. His kids had tipped the coals into the compost bin—evidently before they were completely out.
Our house, thankfully, looks fine. There’s no fire damage save for a small plastic shed against the side of our house, where the door is bent outward in a crescent.
At some point, an officer asked whether my neighbors knew about the fire when I’d started spraying. I said I didn’t know. I hadn’t even yelled to them, wasn’t sure if they would hear me anyway, and thought my greatest service to them would be to make sure their house was safe. In hindsight it was stupid. I should have kept yelling until I saw someone. My rationalization is that the damage looked superficial and I thought I had it contained, but it’s thin, and I know it. I’m not a firefighter. I don’t know what I’m doing. My priority should have been making sure they were awake and out of the house, but I tried to tackle the root of the problem instead.
The firefighters give the all-clear. It’s safe for my neighbors to return to their home. I check with my neighbors to see if they need anything. They say they’re fine, so I start to gather up my hose. A firefighter stops me and suggests that I douse the still-smoking pile they had dragged into the driveway. Again, I’m puzzled that the professionals with the firetruck full of water and industrial-sized hose don’t just do it, but I agree and soak the hell out of it.
I go inside to check on my family. Everyone seems okay, but once we start talking about it, Emily gets upset and starts crying. We all calm her down, explain that everyone’s fine. She’s still upset but calms eventually. Abby is completely fine and goes back up to her room. Emily isn’t tired and wants to stay up.
Louise asks something. I start to answer, but orange light from the window behind her catches my eye. I freeze. The same adrenaline rush from earlier floods me. No, the fire’s out, my rational brain tells me, but my body reacts like it’s still raging. Slowly it registers that the orange light isn’t fire, but the lights on the top of the firetruck. Still, my heart is racing.
I turn on the espresso machine and make a mocha. I’m not going to back to sleep.
I smell like smoke. I strip my pajamas and shower, then put on some fresh pajamas. On the way downstairs, a multichromatic hallway light transitions from blue to orange. I freeze: somewhere in the back of my head, alarms are going off that there’s a fire behind me. I tell myself to calm down and continue downstairs.
I’m a writer. The protagonist in my debut novel is a poor girl suffering from debilitating, chronic posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. When I wrote the book, I could sympathize with her, but I couldn’t identify because I had never suffered PTSD myself. I read, I researched, and I tried to empathize, but in the end, I could only guess what she was going through.
I get it now. Though I still can’t fully empathize with the depth of horror my fictional protagonist suffered, as of tonight, I understand what a flashback is, and how disturbing they can be.