Saturday, June 18, 2005


I'm dreaming about Imperial Stormtroopers, about sirens, trucks, aliens in firetrucks, sirens, sirens.

Mr. Billy gets up on his knees in bed and gaps the blinds with his fingers, looking out the window. We hear one, two, three, more sirens going around the corner.

"That's smoke," he says.

We get out of bed and walk fast to the living room, not saying anything, pulling open the drapes. Firetrucks and police cars are stopping outside our flat, lights going around, flashing off the buildings. It looks like thick thick fog, but up above, the moon is bright and sharp.

Mr. Billy points. There's a bright orange reflection in a house across the street. One of the houses on our side of the street is all flames. We can't tell if it's two houses away or seven; all of them are connected, an unbroken line to ours.

We're quiet, dressing quickly, marking where the cats are, thinking how fast can we get them out. We open our door just as our downstairs neighbor opens his. We exclaim at each other and start up the hill. I come back down to lock the door, and as I cross the street again, water starts washing down the gutter, I jump the gutter just ahead of it.

It's several houses away, one of the buildings that was renovated in the '70's, aggregate facade, almost nothing left of it, flames as high as two men lick out the windows of both floors. The whole neighborhood is out on the street, watching. I wonder about helping, feeling extavagantly useless, thinking of the bucket brigades we'd start to put out fires when I was growing up, but I hear the roar; this is a whole other order of fire, all I can do is stay out of the way.

We hear a saw at work - Mr. Billy tells me they're cutting through the roof. A slender ladder is propped on the side of the building, no way that could work, I think, it's too fragile, it'll go up in a second, but there goes a fireman, clawing up the building, there's his flashlight on the roof, my heart is pounding for him, for anyone close to those flames.

It's everything you know about fire. Terrifying. Beautiful. Dazzling. I can only look away for a few seconds at a time, to see the faces around me lit from the glow, before my eyes are pulled back. Nobody says much.

It doesn't look like they're making any progress. The wind shifts, and I can see into the top floor, flames like scarves draping the ceiling.

I wonder about the people who live there. Just one woman is rolled down the street on a stretcher, she looks okay, conscious anyway, not burned.

I think about smoke inhalation, burns, firemen falling or trapped or hit on the head, babies trapped, someone asleep in the back room, unconscious.

I think about everything you have gone.

They've kept the fire from spreading. The glow on the top floor dies, a dull black corpse now, but still flames below, flare-ups in back. Steam rises into the sky, smoke billows out. Streams of water from inside shoot out onto the street.

Still more firetrucks, ambulances, police cars. A large family stands together near me, grandfather holding a sleeping kid, a fireman asks them if everyone got out. They nod, eyes wide, reflecting the light.

I don't know any of these people, my neighbors.

The building is black now, dead. The cold white of flashlights bouncing around inside.

We stop and talk to our next-door neighbors for awhile. Their 2-year-old is still asleep inside. They're renovating. We talk about houses, about living different places, about tsunamis and earthquakes. Not about fires. Smoke rolls down the hill, the gutters full, neighbor J says it seems like it should be more.

A lot went up in steam, we say.

It's all over, more or less, we're back inside, but still more sirens. The arson squad, cop cars, more cop cars, a cop SUV.

"Management's arrived," says Mr. Billy.

Quieting down, now. The firemen did their job, we did ours, gaping, staying out of their way. Mr. Billy's gone back out to see the aftermath, see if he can find out what happened. I hear a policeman outside talking down a woman who talks and talks, the fear pulled out of her with every word. I look out the window, from above I see a firewoman holding her helmet, talking to a cop. The flares blocking off our street are right outside, right below our window.

Truck #12's insignia is the Grateful Dead skull on a gold background. "S.F.P.D" above the shield, "The Haight" beneath it.

I pet the cats. Their eyes are big and they hold still, listening.

My hands are shaking.


jkirlin said...


monkey #5 said...

I was almost tempted today, after the meeting, to circle the block, to look for the home in rubbles.

Reading your post after, which is terrifying and beautiful all at once, I'm glad I just drove off. I'm too weak, too soft to look.

Daniel Heath said...

the pile of rubble was something. I drove by quick; didn't want to think too much about the charred shreds of clothing, the blackened and bent appliances.

Chemical Billy said...

I walked back up there the next day - there was that smell of damp cinders - the pile of rubble out front was still smoking. I noticed a lot of bedsprings, and that, more than anything, made me want to cry.

monkey #5 said...

There's a thing about beds, just something about the thought of one's bed, sleeping in one's bed after a long business trip or a vacation, that longing, not just for home, but the BED. Have you ever been on a plane home, when everyone else is talking about eating or showering once they get home and then someone says, "I can't wait to sleep in my bed"? And everyone gets really quiet. There's a thing about beds.

Man, now I want to cry.

Sylvana said...

It's so terrible seeing an event like that and feeling like there is nothing you can do to help.