How I watched my apartment burn — OR! — What do you grab in a fire?

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It’s one of those absurd questions you hear time & time again – what do you grab when the house is on fire? Let me tell you, it is not a moment born out of deep contemplation but the instant panic of loosing everything. First, my computer. On the couch. Then I turned around, grabbed my cell phone, keys, and finally my LC-A+ sitting on the counter top. The men were screaming louder now and between the knock on the door and me hopping over the broken glass of the fire extinguisher box: 12 seconds.

From emails to barefoot on the sidewalk: 30 seconds. Max. Wearing nothing but pink shorts and a white T-shirt, I looked up to the corner apartment and saw just how bad everything was. People were already gathered with their phones and cameras… there were no fire trucks. I started dialing friends and then my parents. No one tells you how difficult a touch-sensitive phone is to operate when your fingers are shaking.

One woman, Mo, from The Good Fellows recognizes my panic. She guides me to a neighbors’ house, Sandy & Hassam, consoling me that it would be okay. I was alive. It’s just ‘stuff’. I’m in between weeping and thanking her. She sits me on someone’s couch, bay windows overlooking Haight street, fills her palms with water and rubs it on my face. Like watching some awful movie, people are gazing upwards down the street and curls of gray smoke are passing by. There is nothing more infuriating that watching people watch your home get destroyed.

What happens next? I mean, you can presume there’s fire involved, right? Go read the rest on Tiffy’s blog. It’s…compelling.

Comments on How I watched my apartment burn — OR! — What do you grab in a fire?

  1. I’d have to grab my two Kitties, my wallet, I’d want my laptop but it has so much crap hooked up to it i’m sure I’d panic and leave it. My camera… My mom’s necklace, which is like the one and only thing I have of her, though I’m sure I’d forget it and be totally distraught about it once I realized.

  2. My dog and my partner – everything else is insured. (Actually, my partner is insured too…)

    But this is just another reminder that I need to start backing up my computer, either on an external harddrive that I keep at work, or to something like a Dropbox paid account. I have heard too many fire stories recently.

  3. Has anyone else seen this blog The Burning House? It is as the title implies a blog were people submit pictures (mostly) of what they would take in a house fire.

    While I’d never want a fire to happen to anyone this guest post and this blog do make me think.
    I’d hope I’d have time to grab my external hard drive and other such ‘must haves’ but in the end my groom would be my top priority. I’ve always wanted to scan childhood photos then copy the file onto a flash drive later placed into a safety deposit box.

    Tough stuff, I’m sorry you had this experience.

  4. My Cockatoo and my kitties. Everything else is just stuff. Though I’d be sad to loose my moms sewing machine and piano, they are replaceable.

  5. My fire alarm went off the other day, randomly. We live in a large complex so we have those crazy industrial fear-inspiring alarms that penetrate down into your soul when they start ringing.
    I grabbed the two pairs of shoes nearest me – one for me, one for my daughter and our dog’s leash and dog.
    No cell phone, no wallet, nothing else.
    Thank god it was a false alarm, but even if it hadn’t been I don’t think I’d feel too bad.

  6. wow this gives me goose bumps. I have a real fear of my place burning while im not home with my dog in it. I think about it a lot and it scares the shit out of me. If the thought crosses my mind during the day i’m a wreck for the rest of the day. so besides my husband and our furbaby all i’d grad would be my laptop, my phone and my grama’s old ring. : (

    • Do you have a sticker on your front door telling the fire department that you have a dog? We had one growing up (though we had “cat” circled). See if you can get one. It might sooth you fears a little if you know that, should anything happen, the firefighters will be looking for your baby.

        • There’s also many breed specific window clings and stickers too. That way the emergency personnel know if they’re looking for a chihuahua that might be cowering under a chair or a giant Bernese mountain dog…

  7. I know that my keys, debit card, cell phone and glasses are always dropped off in my apartment along the way to my bedroom, so I know I’d lose SO MUCH TIME just getting to those things.
    I’d like to think I could get my cats out, but anytime they sense that I really need to pick them up RIGHT NOW, they run. I can just imagine that they’d scatter and hide in the event of a fire alarm. I don’t know if I could save them without putting myself in danger. :< Sad thoughts.

  8. Grab the purse (inside is all kinds of ID and other important cards, including health insurance) and cats. I would hate to lose the rest, but my pet’s lives and the proof to rebuild mine is what I need the most. Since the car is in a carport a ways away, I could throw the cats in there and take out the spare winter items I keep inside to stay warm.

  9. My pet snails would be number 1. Regardless of what I should take I couldn’t leave them behind.

    I was going to say the draw of important documents would be number 2 but the various organisations that issued them all have copies anyway. I’d try to take either our passports or wallets though because I imagine ID will make getting the rest back easier.

    I’d try to take the external hard drives for the computer as well. The machine itself is huge and heavy (and devaluing daily as only a desktop gaming PC can…or a car) and all the important stuff is on the external drives.

    That would probably be it because after that it’s a close tie between lots of impractical stuff that’s all over the house. I attach sentimental value to nearly everything and it’d suck to lose this stuff but I could get over it. And a lot is replaceable. Sure, new books wouldn’t have the crinkled pages where they made me cry, or worn edges from going back and forth to school/work in my bag and the scribbled note that reminds me of the long conversation with the book shop owner. But functionally they’d be identical.

  10. Definitely my laptop, as it’s the only thing with wedding photos on it (yet to print them, and Lord only knows where the disc is…), the hubby, the dogs and the cat. Thankfully, in New Zealand if you’re a renter, it’s a legal requirement for your landlord to have tenants insurance incase of a fire. So even if we don’t have up to date insurance, we’re covered by our landlord’s insurance. It’s all replaceable.

  11. I think this highlights that everyone should backup their computer to at least two different physical places…if you can’t pick up your laptop in a rush why would you be able to pick up your external hard drive?
    http://lifehacker.com/5405775/youre-backing-up-your-data-the-wrong-way
    Personally I have a rugged external hard drive (I’m a klutz) and am backed up to Crashplan, an online server-it offers unlimited storage for ~$50/year, less if you pay for more years upfront (if you decide to cancel they’ll still refund you a prorated amount). It also has a lot of other benefits similar options don’t have, but you can easily compare them for yourself. What matters is that in an emergency you can recover your most important files from a different location without risking your life!

    My boyfriend is also really into post-apocalyptic survival, so we have bug-out-bags in our cars with camping gear, food, water, medical supplies and extra clothes. We also keep the cats’ carrier by the door to make it easily accessible. We’ve trained our cats to come or leave a room on command, so hopefully we’ll be able to get them out of the apartment even if they’re too stressed to get into the carrier.

    I’ve been thinking about getting a safe for our passports, etc…I wouldn’t think go grab it in an emergency but I really love seeing all of my visas and entry/exit stamps.

  12. Oooh yes, my external harddrive. I had never really thought about this, but the harddrive contains EVERYTHING from photos to all the work I’ve done since I started out as a comic book artist. I’d hate to lose that.

    I think my husband is obvious, and obviously more important than the harddrive. XD But he’s not something I “grab”, he can move by himself quite well. =P

    When I get to take care of my turtles again (they’re currently living at my parent’s place)… I wonder. Taking them out of their aquarium or pond would seem like a complicated task in a fire situation, and maybe they’d actually be quite safe inside the water? Wow, that’s difficult. I love them and would hate to leave them behind, but turtles aren’t something you could just carry under your arm (they SCRATCH!). O_o

    • We’ve decided to keep the cat carrier out and available just in case of this sort of thing. We had a couple of tornado scares earlier this year, I had to dig through the closet (with amazing speed) to get the carrier out, but in a real emergency I wouldn’t want to have to do that. It lives under a table in the living room now.

    • It depends where the fire is but I wouldn’t count on the water to keep them safe – water boils, for a start 🙁 The cat carrier (or other appropriately-sized container) suggestion’s a good one for anyone in a similar situation.

  13. Once I woke up in the middle of the night because there was an overwhelming smell of smoke in our bedroom. Turns out it was a house down the street on fire, but before we knew that my then-fiance and I grabbed our stuff and got out. We took the dog and cat (in a carrier that happened to have been left out from a trip to the vet a few days prior), a safe-box full of our important papers (passports, insurance and medical records) and my heirloom jewelry, our laptops and phones (with chargers), my purse (containing my wallet with ID, journal and my book) and his wallet and briefcase, a couple family photos and my childhood teddy bear, Minkle. I threw it all into a duffel bag while calling 911 as Todd corralled the pets. We were out of the house in less than three minutes from when I first woke up from smelling smoke.

    I’m so glad that everything we needed was reasonably organized/stored neatly and that I knew where the important stuff was so I could find it quickly and easily.

  14. I’d have trouble with that — I know I would grab my husband and my critters, but we’ve got a lot of art. Some of it is from my mom and she can just make more (except for the amazing wedding gift she painted.) What’s worse Some of it is from my grandmother who is no longer with us. Losing her art would break my heart. With the exception of some heirloom jewelry we don’t have a lot that’s not replaceable.

    • Maybe you can take high-res pictures of your art and back it up? At the very least if you lose the originals, you can reprint them on canvas.

  15. This is a really interesting article – my computer is a pretty big desktop so I’d have to grab my external hard drive (note to self: remember to back up computer for the firs ttime in god-knows-how-long) – my purse (I’m add so I pretty much keep everything in there I need or otherwise I lose it) and my rats. Everything else can be replaced.
    I’m sad I wouldn’t be able to take my harp. But unfortunately, that motha’s probably going up in flames if there’s a fire in my house- no way to quickly remove a 90 pound 6 foot tall harp from a townhouse laden with stairs. That’s what harp insurance is for though.

  16. I don’t have a personal computer – all my personal stuff is on my work computer (they are ok with us using work computers for personal stuff) or my cell phone. The only things I KNOW I would grab are my dog, my purse (which has my wallet in it) my cell phone (always either in my purse or beside me in bed), my glasses (on my head or beside me in bed), and my shadow box of my son’s pics. Anything else, I can replace.

  17. I am always so paranoid about fires or any kind of emergencies… When I was a little kid, I actually asked for a fireproof box for my birthday as my only gift (and got it!). I now back up any finished stories/poems/digital art/etc that I make on my computer to a flash drive and store that in the fireproof box. I should also start storing things like my passport and social security card there too (it does have a lock on it)… But anyway, it’s so nice to know that not everything will be destroyed if I don’t have time to get to it. Save the living things and leave the rest, but no sense in not being prepared!

  18. My house is full of family heirlooms (antique cradle, maternal great grandmother’s china, paternal great grandmother’s rocker) and original art. The art would sadden me, but losing the heirlooms would break my heart. I’d probably just grab our ketubah, though. Because its important, but also because its conveniently hanging by the front door.

    As for living things, I’d grab the baby (OBVIOUSLY), but I’d probably just leave the front door open and trust the cat to get out on her own. Unless I see her, I probably wouldn’t be certain if she was inside or outside anyway.

  19. Ugh, a downstairs neighbor left their gas on and I came home one night to the entire building reeking of gas. Called the fire department. I feel like I need to report them to the Co-OP board or something. Anyways. Yikes ok, important documents and expensive jewelry are in a fireproof safe bolted in our house. So, in order of grabbing:

    1) Two cats, into two carriers that are easily accessible in a closet. I might shove both cats into one crate, they’ll deal. I’m just worried about the inevitable “OMG THE CRATES ARE OUT HIDE!” maneuver that both of them would do.

    2) A small drawer from my jewelry box that holds special to me/family jewelry.

    3)The external hard drive, easy to grab only about the size of a pack of cards.

    If I had time:
    4) The wedding album
    5) A few old (Like old old, from the 40s-80s) family photos in a box or frames.

    As far as the “leave the door open for the cats” thing, isn’t one of the big fire safety/preparedness instruction to close as many doors as you can to keep the fire from spreading more quickly? (I guess that pertains more to apartments than freestanding houses.)

    • it is, and is why you should sleep with your bedroom door closed. However, once all the humans are out, the cat is the next priority – before the stuff or the house itself.

  20. Ever since I watched a 40+ unit apartment building across from my old apartment be reduced to rubble in less than two hours because of a fire, I’ve had countless discussions and brainstorms on what I would grab. If there weren’t people who needed help and I had 30 seconds, I’d grab a bag or blanket and toss my purse, phone, framed caricature of my grandpa, and album of childhood photos into it. I’d also unhook my iMac and just hitch the monitor under my arm and hightail it out of there. All of this is within 15 feet of each other so it could be possible to grab it all…

    If someone needed my help, I’d try to grab my purse and back-up hard drive.

  21. My niece’s friend died in a fire recently. He got his dad out safely, went back inside to get their things, and didn’t make it. He was 17. There are things that I would be devastated to lose, but staying alive is priority one.

  22. When I was a bit younger and living in Tornado alley, we had a devastating straight line wind storm that began in the early morning hours without warning. We awoke in the center of it, and assumed we were in a tornado. We grabbed only a heavy quilt to shield ourselves from flying debris, and our pet python(slung into a pillowcase) when we moved to the cellar. Many buildings around us were destroyed, by falling trees or wind.

    Now, that Im older, and have more responsibilities, I have an easy-to grab fireproof box containing irreplaceable pictures, identification and insurance documents, my partner’s logbook (he’s an airline pilot) and heirloom jewelry. I had previously stored it in my closet on a high shelf, but I realized that we are both tiny people and in a true emergency, it wasn’t realistic to expect that I (or he) would drag a ladder or chair to the bedroom to climb up on. It’s now stored in a low, accessible location.

    The other thing that I would grab (besides my dog and human companion) is a hatbox containing the ashes of my daughter and momentos of her short life. It is stored nearby the fireproof box. I have always been torn between keeping those items in the fireproof box for protection or keeping them in a more reverent and accessible location.

  23. When my apartment building burned down in February, I was at work, and was originally told that it was a total loss, and that I wasn’t going to be able to salvage anything. Fortunately, it was only a partial loss (and some of the losses were due to theft by members of the fire department), and the two things I was most excited to recover were my bicycle and my dictionary. As a city-dwelling grad student, I felt like if I had this two things I’d somehow be okay. 🙂 And I was.

  24. One of the things my husband did when we moved into a new house was to place the fireproof box with our important documents in the corner of the ground floor most accessible from the outside, so in the event of bad fire the fire department could cut a hole in that part of the house and retrieve it easily.

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