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Saturday, 24 October 2009

Fire!



At the time of the fire in December 1998, I was part of the Corporate Finance team working for an American multi-national. On the previous evening, I had checked and double checked that my bag contained all the relevant papers for the seminar being held at the Barbican in the morning. It was being hosted by the new American CEO and it would have been little short of career suicide not to have arrived on time. I was so determined not to be late I  even got out the shoes I was going to wear and left my cream skirt suit hanging from the outer wardrobe door, so there would not be a mad panic to find them both when I got up.  Satisfied that I had left absolutely nothing to chance, I set my alarm clock for seven a.m. and switched off the bedside light.
I woke up puzzled. I thought I could smell smoke. I dismissed the idea from my mind and went back to sleep. When I awoke again I sat bolt upright in bed. Why was the bedroom so dark? Then I realised that the room was pitch black because it was filled with smoke. I slipped out of bed and stood by the door. I was gripped by panic. I was convinced that I had somehow caused the fire. Had my socket extension caught alight because it was overloaded? The next thought that went through my head was: If that was the case, whatever would the neighbours think? I had to somehow get rid of the smoke before it seeped into their flats.
I managed to make my way across to the curtains and tried to draw them open. This simple everyday act proved quite beyond me, I ended up sending the brass rail crashing to the ground as I tugged in desperation on the curtains. When I finally managed to prise open the window, I saw all my neighbours, tightly wrapped up in their dressing gowns against the December cold, on the lawn below.
“There’s a fire, stay by the window,” someone ordered. During my career, I had been on numerous fire awareness courses. But I had completely forgotten my training. My one instinct was to flee down the stairs. Only my neighbour’s words of warning stopped me. They helped save my life. If I had opened my front door at the top of the stairwell, the fire raging below would have swept over me in an instant.
I suddenly realised that I had no nightwear on. I plunged back into the smoke to try and retrieve my dressing gown from off the top of the bed where I had left it. It was a foolish act and gave new meaning the idea of dying of shame. I then made my way to my kitchen. Seeing my neighbours safely grouped together in the garden made me feel incredibly lonely, the more so when I heard a woman repeatedly warn her brother not to go into the house to try and rescue me.

Now even the kitchen was filled with dense acrid smoke. Coughing hoarsely, I leaned precariously out of the window. desperate to breath in a lungful of fresh air. At the time, I never thought of the flames. The idea of being burnt alive would have petrified me. However it did dawn on me that the flats below had gas pipes running through them, which might explode at any moment, adding to my sense of utter hopelessness.

I neither saw nor hear the fire brigade arrive as I was beginning to blackout. I remember seeing them by the garden gate and then nothing until the top of a ladder miraculously appeared amidst the choking plumes of smoke. I grabbed hold of it but to my despair and bewilderment it was immediately wrenched out of my hands. The fire brigade were not prepared to take the risk of the windows below me exploding outwards from the heat. They shouted over to me to sit on the window sill, turn around and reach out for the ladder, now placed against the brick wall. Under normal circumstances I would be hard pressed to climb up or down a step ladder, let alone try and climb onto a ladder set at such an awkward angle from me and standing nearly forty feet up from the ground. But sheer adrenalin and determination gave me renewed strength. The worst that could happen was that I could slip and plunge to my death on to the concrete below. To stay within the house meant certain death. It was an easy choice. As I climbed onto the ladder, a fireman waited on the lower rungs to help guide me as it was impossible to see my footing amidst the clouds of smoke.

Once on the ground I felt invincible and waved aside the need for medical treatment. However, when I saw the intensity of the raging fire the bravado left me and I felt vulnerable again and readily got into the waiting ambulance. The hospital treated me for smoke inhalation but, anxious to know what was happening at the house, I discharged myself early the next day. When I arrived, I realised that although the upper storeys were badly damaged, the ground floor flat, with its separate entrance, had escaped relatively unscathed. It was there that I was informed that what I had assumed to have been an accidental fire was in fact arson. Someone had slipped into the house around 4a.m. and poured petrol into the upper part of the communal hall before setting it alight. I was devastated. A simple accident I could accept but not such wanton callousness.

We never did find out for certain who had caused the fire. We had our suspicions and for a time there was a degree of mutual paranoia. There was no sign of a break in; did the arsonist have a key?

It was nine moths before I was able to return to my flat as the damage to the Victorian house had been so extensive. I never had nightmares about the event but I still feel a chill whenever I read about others trapped in house fires. That night, I had witnessed the very worst of human nature in the form of the arsonist and the very best in the shape of those people, prepared to risk their own lives to save mine.

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