September 11th, 2008

On September 11, 2008, I was working on my glib response to a new ad campaign promoting high fructose corn syrup, when I heard two pretty loud bangs out on my usually snoozy street. I hesitated, and then decided it was loud enough to warrant a peek outside. As I parted the curtains, I heard a woman yelling so I booked outside. “Call 911!” a woman in a minivan yelled to me, “That house is on fire!” I whipped my head around and saw a roar of flames shooting out of the house two doors down. I grabbed my phone, dialed 911, breathlessly babbled my address and repeated “It’s bad, it’s bad…”

Fortunately the owner made it out and was being vigorously coaxed by my next-door neighbor to get up off his lawn and away from some fallen wires. He finally did after both tires on his van parked by the house exploded. Whoever was home at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon on our block was now outside gaping slack-jawed at the smoke finding its way out of every window. The fire department was probably there in less than five minutes, (which is pretty good for a volunteer crew who has to make a stop at the station before getting to the scene), but those minutes counted. By the time they arrived, I knew it would be a complete loss. All I could do was stand there with my hands on my head muttering, “Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod…”

In ten minutes, our block was crowded with three fire trucks, an ambulance, police cars, and several other random emergency vehicles. Within 15 minutes, people had parked their cars on our lawns and joined the spectacle. Call it morbid curiosity. I don’t doubt some of it was. But this is a small town. When people hear about a fire on a certain street, they KNOW that street. Their cousin, their co-worker’s cousin, their best friend lives on that street. People need to know who might need their help.

I know very little about this neighbor. He is an older man who keeps to himself. He has lived in town all his life. He recently separated from a woman who seems a little unstable. She now lives in an apartment across town and makes frequent treks past his house, occasionally yelling profanities at it from across the street. 

At that moment, I wished I knew him. I wanted him to know that I would do anything to help him. I wanted to comfort him. I offered him a drink of water, but he looked right through me. I so desperately wanted to do something for someone. What about the firemen? As I rapidly racked my brain for the hydrating options in my house, the EMS team came in with cases of water bottles and 20 lb. bags of ice. That policeman, he’s been here awhile…maybe he needs water. Who needs to use my bathroom? But I stayed put. No one needed a busybody neighbor getting in anyone’s face trying to satisfy a personal need to feel useful. The emergency crew needed to do their job, and my neighbor needed familiar faces. His estranged wife finally made it across town, dazed and confused, his bar buddy joined him, a niece came. My next-door neighbor, the one who pulled him off his lawn, never left his side. She used my cell phone to call work, so that calmed my failing sense of purpose.      

It took almost an hour to extinguish the fire. Apparently our water tower was being painted, thus empty, so they had to bring water in from other sources. By 3:30, the smoke had cleared. Half the block was covered in foam, Alliant Energy was fixing wires, the crowd dissipated. And a shell of a house remained.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic. It is not the worst disaster anyone has ever witnessed. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Considering the anniversary of this date, this is a drop in the bucket. But it is a dramatic event. My nerves were frazzled. I have never been so close to a fire. I had no idea how fast your entire castle could go. I have never seen firemen drenched from head to toe in foam and soot and sweat. I have never before watched a fireman sit on the curb, propped up against a bag of ice, red-faced and hyperventilating but getting enough air to tell the EMS “You better check on Tom, he went in right after I did”. It hurts your insides to watch.

But nothing gnaws at my gut more than the lingering image of my neighbor sitting on my front lawn with his head in his hands. I have never before seen the face of someone watching their house burn, and I hope I never do again. 

On a very small scale, this was my 9/11. Although horrified by the attack seven years ago, I was so far removed from it. The images were on TV. But this is my block. That is my neighbor. I was here for the whole thing. I can only now grasp, again to a small degree, that gut-wrenching feeling watching a disaster happen to your folk. What I’ll never fully comprehend is how painful those images must have been for anyone who witnessed the big 9/11 and lived to tell about it. My neighbor started his fire working on an old motorcycle. It might have been prevented. No one in the World Trade Center was recklessly playing with airplanes that day. What did those witnesses do with their level of gut-wrench? Their feelings of helplessness?   

Today, we have plenty of traffic on our block. It is the number one news item in town. The neighbors are chattering like squirrels about where they were when they heard the big bangs. But people need to air it out, get it out of their heads. Talking loosens the tightly wound bundle of nerves. And I know its not supposed to be about The Stuff. Obviously, you get an immediate dose of what is truly a priority, and that is no harm or loss of life. But that Stuff represents your hobbies, your money and hard work, your collections, your memories. It represents you. That Stuff is important. And almost everything that man has worked for and earned and treated himself to is gone.   

My life has not changed. This was not my tragedy and it would be foolish of me to claim it as such. Last night, I did not curl into a ball, I made cookies and attended an Open House at the school. I will not march over to enthusiastically introduce myself to all the neighbors I haven’t met yet because we should rally around this house fire as a reason to unify. On this block, that would just be weird. I will get back to picking apart the nutritional content of processed foods and lipstick on pigs and who will get eliminated on Project Runway next week.

But today, the burnt smell in the air haunts me. I can still see the look on my neighbor’s face. The shell of the house two doors down disturbs me. I can’t deny that I have been given a moment of crystal clear perspective. So today, I will do some praying for my neighbor, count some blessings and watch when my son says, “Watch this, Mom!” for the 25th time. 

Because today it is fresh on my brain that your life can change in seconds.