Since when do fire alarms actually mean a fire?
I am a regular girl from a regular family, and everything in my life was just, well regular. Until the story that happened when I was 14 years old that was anything but.
It was a snowy Friday evening in January, my mother had just lit candles, and we all settled down on the couches to relax and schmooze. A neighborhood friend of mine came over, the little kids played on the carpet at our feet, and we relished the warm coziness amid the grand snowstorm going on outside.
And then the smoke alarm upstairs started beeping.
I looked over at my mother quizzically. “That’s strange, that one never goes off,” my mother said. Sometimes when the kitchen got smoky, the downstairs alarm went off, but never the upstairs one. “I wonder if it’s broken,” my mother mused. “Chaviva, can you run up to check that everything’s alright up there?”
The shrill alarm was making me nervous, and I didn’t want to go. My older sister volunteered to check instead, and after a minute, we all heard her shriek as she came dashing down the stairs, screaming at us to leave. We weren’t expecting that. Since when do fire alarms actually mean a fire? Everyone jumped up in a panic, and a moment later, we heard a loud explosion as we rushed out of the house into the freezing cold snow. There were about two inches of snow on the ground, with flakes still falling all around us. None of us were wearing coats; some of us weren’t even wearing shoes, and I was actually wearing crocs — not the best choice of footwear for the snow!
Baruch Hashem, everyone was safely out the house. My mother shouted, “Run to the neighbors! Tell them to call for help!” I ran to our closest neighbor, my feet numb, snow crunching in my crocs. I furiously banged on our neighbor’s door, telling them, “Call for help! Fire! There’s a fire in our house!” I remember looking up at our house and seeing the fire as it leaped through the windows. The flames were larger than any I’d ever seen, and I was terrified. Thankfully, I knew my family was out and okay, but seeing my house in flames was a scary image, one that I’ll never forget. Our neighbors invited us in, which was a big relief because, as I mentioned, we were not wearing coats, boots, or anything appropriate for being outside in the snow.
Our neighbor’s house was warm, and not watching the flames helped me calm down a bit. We kept hearing sirens but didn’t see any trucks coming. It took some time, but eventually they made it to us; six fire trucks and a few ambulances. We later found out that they had had a hard time getting through the snowy streets.
Once the firetrucks got to work, we watched through the window, anxious to know what was going to happen or how damaged our house was. By that point, the men from all the shuls in the area were coming home, and everyone wanted to help out in any way they could. Various neighbors offered us extra rooms for the night and invited us for the seudah. Some of these neighbors barely even knew our family.
When the fire was finally out, the firemen advised us not to go back home since our house was heavily damaged. We all split up to different neighbors, and I was glad to stay at my friend’s house — the friend who had been in our house with us originally — together with my sister. To be honest, we didn’t sleep very much that night. There was a lot whirling through my brain, including wondering what we had lost. I kept reminding myself that everyone was safe and that we were warm and that was the main thing.
There wasn’t much we could do for the rest of Shabbos. All we had were the clothes we were wearing and the kindness of our neighbors.
As soon as Shabbos ended, my parents got to work. Before they had a chance to take care of anything, the American Red Cross showed up. Apparently, they come to help when there are emergencies and disasters, and our fire counted as one! It was interesting when they told my parents that they usually show up right away, but when they heard we were Jewish and lived in a community, they knew we would be taken care of over Shabbos! What a kiddush Hashem!
We didn’t yet know what we would be able to salvage from the house, so we ran out to buy clothing for everyone for a day or two. It turned out that my room — which was in the basement — was the only room that did not sustain significant damage. My belongings barely even smelled of smoke. Everyone else’s stuff, on the other hand, was completely destroyed. My parents and siblings all needed an entire, brand-new wardrobe, plus they lost all of their possessions — books, games, mementos, photo albums, toys… etc. Everything was damaged either by the fire, the smoke, or the water the firemen used to put out the fire. It was really hard.
Everyone was so helpful in getting us back up on our feet. For the first few days, we stayed with our neighbors who gave us food and anything else we needed. After that, our insurance set us up in a hotel for two weeks. A bunch of local stores opened up special for our family to help us out, and many even gave us things for free or at a discounted price! Our family and friends also took us in for each Shabbos until everything started settling down.
While we were in the hotel, my parents found a rental house where we would stay for the next six months. During those months, the insurance company cleaned out and restored our house, and evaluated which items needed to be replaced. Like I said, it was most of our possessions and it was really hard that so much got destroyed.
It was difficult to face reality. I kept wanting to go home and pretend that our house was exactly the way we’d left it. I didn’t want to go in and see all the destruction. For the first few nights, I also had a very hard time sleeping. It helped to talk about it, and I started sleeping better once we moved into the rental.
One of the challenges of the first few weeks was actually going to school. There was no reason for me to stay home — not there was much of a home to stay in anyway; what I considered home wasn’t safe to live in — and I went to school every day as though everything was regular. But it wasn’t regular, and I had to deal with rumors and lots of questions from girls I hardly knew. It got very tiring to repeat the story over and over again.
Some people were unintentionally hurtful because they made thoughtless comments. I know that no one ever meant to hurt my feelings, but it was a hard time, and I was sensitive. My good friends, the ones with whom I’d always been close, stood by my side and offered to help. They treated me like a normal person, which was just what I needed. When everything in my life was upside down, having my same old friends lended some semblance of normalcy to my life!
I learned a lot from the fire. Mainly that most physical belongings can be replaced; and family cannot. Everyone was safe, and that was the most important thing.
I also learned a lot from my sisters. They lost a lot more than I did (because most of my stuff was okay), and they were so strong, even when they realized that the only things that they had left were the ones they were wearing. Their strength helped me through the first few weeks because even though they lost so much, they were so positive. That helped give me courage.
Another powerful lesson I learned was what a brachah it is to be surrounded by Yidden and live in a supportive, giving, generous, and helpful community.
Now that the dust has settled, and life is back to normal, these lessons are ones that I hold close to my heart.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 968)
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