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On fire: a true story

It's midnight. I'm typing an e-mail to a friend when I hear an odd noise; I hear it over and over. At first I think it's the TV downstairs. My wife is watching a tape of "The Amazing Race" and I think she's playing the same bit over and over because I keep hearing the same yelling again and again, and I'm getting annoyed. I go downstairs and watch—no one is yelling.

We live in a rural place where it's usually quiet, so I can't figure out what this noise is. At first I think it's a bird outside. Then maybe kids playing on the street. I hear this voice repeating "Ahhh!" I think it's coming from the hill behind our house.

Finally the voice yells: "Help me!" and I hear what sounds like gunshots. Then they yell "Fire! Fire!" My wife says, "That's what you're supposed to yell if someone is attacking you and you want people to help."

We don't see or smell fire, so I'm wondering what's really going on. I hear more gunshots and wonder if I should hit the floor or begin fashioning a bullet-proof vest out of cookie sheets.

I call 9-1-1. They tell me to get more info and call them back! I yell "where are you?" out the window and I hear a woman yell back a street address that's just up the street. I call 911 again.

I yell more questions but the voice outside just keeps yelling "hurry, hurry!" in a way that's loud but not too excited. I hear an explosion and glass breaking so I call 9-1-1 yet again. I'm afraid to go out, but I also think I need to do whatever I can. I get out a flashlight and start to run up the street.

I'm running up the street in the dark, feeling like someone in a horror movie who's been told by 9-1-1 that the call was coming from upstairs. I'm running towards the disaster like I'm going to be able to do something about it.

I get to the house, and it's glowing—there's a big fire in the kitchen and smoke is billowing out the broken window and all I can think is that it looks like the fake fire in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland. I return to reality when the woman inside, a neighbor I know named Melba, is yelling, "I'm trapped!"

And there are more gunshots!

I yell that the fire department is coming, but I can't get in because the fire has reached the front door (and I'm wearing fleece pants that would probably explode in flames if I scratched my leg for too long).

The fire trucks finally come (it was probably only five minutes but it seemed like ages) and I tell them what's going on. By this time the woman has stopped yelling, and I'm afraid she's dead.

Her house is all steel (her husband owned some kind of steel company) and it's basically built on six steel stilts over a creek; none of the house is built on the ground—so of course I'm worried about melting steel and the house crashing into the creek and the fire spreading to the trees and burning down the neighborhood, like the huge fire on the street to the north of us which burned 48 houses in two hours five years ago (that's too many numbers in one sentence, I know).

At first there are two trucks, but only two firemen—as if they weren't quite sure I'd been telling the truth and they didn't want to send out too many firefighters. They also didn't seem too excited about it (of course, it's their job), while I'm feeling like I'm in a movie that's playing in slow motion. They finally break down the door and have to spray the fire with water for a long time before they can even get in. I see lots of smoke and steam coming out.

More neighbors start to appear. The weird part is that we all heard the sound, but all rationalized that it was different things. I thought it was the TV, then a bird, then kids. Melba's next door neighbor thought the sound was coming from the kids on the street below them and went down there to look. The elderly woman a few houses down from us thought it was kids celebrating graduation. No one could tell where the sound was coming from. It didn't seem real.

My neighbor told me she'd known Melba for 20 years and explained that Melba refuses to use the telephone. She won't touch one to receive or make calls. I realize that's why she didn't call 911 herself.

More firemen arrive and the fire's put out and Melba is safe, but is trapped on her back deck and they can't get her out because there's no exit from the deck other than a 42-foot drop to the creek. They set up a big fan to blow smoke out of the house.

I explain this to each new neighbor who appears and wonders what all the trucks are doing there and why the street is blocked and they can't drive to their house.

I meet neighbors I've never met before. I learn one that one of my neighbors is engaged to a woman named Michelle who has a son with a loud motorbike and a ranch north of here. Why am I learning all this now?

I learn from Michelle that Melba has no electricity in her house. I figure if she doesn't like the phone, maybe she doesn't like electricity either. Weird, since I live one house away and practically everything I do requires electricity. I also learn that Melba never throws anything out, so the house is full of newspapers and wood and "lots of steel things" (whatever that means).

Now the firemen are bringing out shotguns, which explains the gun shots I heard—I feel lucky I wasn't accidentally shot by superheated bullets.

I think of our garage, full of stuff, and vow to tell my wife it's a fire hazard. I wonder if there's there some kind of swirling vortex on our street that has attracted people who collect too much stuff.

Now I feel like one of those neighbors you see on the TV news saying, "She was always nice and quiet." She was nice—but actually quite talkative if you got her going.

They bring her out of the house and she's wearing a red plaid Winnie the Pooh nightshirt covered in soot. She's OK. Her dog is missing. She's worried about her guns! I'm grateful I've always been friendly and I didn't even know she had guns.

A fireman tells me that she's alive because of me, and that I may also have saved the neighborhood, but I just feel guilty for not storming into the house in my flammable pants, dodging the bullets and dragging her out.

It's the firemen who really saved the day. Melba's fine, her house hasn't fallen into the creek and her dog was found—so my delay at doing something stupid seems to have been a wise if selfish choice.

And I'm thankful that she finally yelled "help me" and that I heard it because my window was open. It's now 2:30 and the fire trucks are still here.

I'm back at my electric computer, typing this, my sweatshirt smelling a little bit like burnt marshmallows.

 

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DO GOOD WITH A CLICK

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ONE LAST WORD:

My window's still open.

 

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The SchoomozeLetter is ©1998-2005, Daniel Will-Harris, all rights reserved. If you'd like to use any article on the web or in print, please ask for permission. If you're an agent or publisher looking to publish these pieces, just drop me a note.