No longer suburban, Bruce Bentzman offers the latest piece in his new series:

From the Night Factory

16. Lightning Strikes

It was daylight, so I walked over to the western end of the development to have a closer look at the previous night’s fire. We live in an apartment complex that is tucked into a cul-de-sac surrounded on two sides by railroad tracks beyond the trees and on the third by highway U.S. 1. To enter the development, you have to turn off Big Oak Road and follow a long drive through woods for three-quarters of a mile. It is a collection of three-story buildings with stone and vinyl facades.

Ms Keogh, my more significant other, and I were watching the excellent Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour via the internet, courtesy of Netflix. It was during the program that the storm front arrived. The thunder increased in frequency and decibels. It eventually interfered with the pleasure of being able to hear Kevin McCloud. At times we could feel the thunder; it vibrated the floor and climbed up through our chairs legs. It even set off car alarms in the parking lot and I could feel a thump in my chest. We gave up our program and went out onto the balcony to sit and watch the lightning. It served as our entertainment; one way in which we have adapted to climate change. There wasn’t much rain.

Living on the top floor, our balcony faces east and overlooks a large area at the development’s center, a grassy court surrounded by a parking lot. There wasn’t much rain to accompany the lightning and thunder. The cloud cover was high. Long bolts zapped from very high to the ground and I thought it fantastic while Ms Keogh thought it awe-inspiring.

I could smell wood burning and suspected nothing more than someone was grilling a late dinner. Then we heard a woman screaming, but neither of us was certain, and then it stopped. We convinced ourselves we were mistaken, an inclination to be skeptical of anything out of the ordinary. We tried to imagine other causes for the screams. Then we heard the distant sound of fire trucks.

“They’re coming in here,” Ms Keogh said, and sure enough, the first of several fire trucks came racing into the development past where we could see. This was a disturbing surprise. There were more distant alarms and trucks continued to come. Wherever they were going, it was behind our building, so we stepped out into the stairwell where others had gathered.

In this development, the stairs are halls opened at either end. We could see the building on fire at the west end. We went to the balustrade and had an excellent view of building number twelve. We live in building number eight. There were two holes in the roof of building number twelve and both holes spurted flames. None of the lights were on in the building and our first thoughts were for our neighbors, hoping they had evacuated. The fire company was already there and setting up. There would eventually be more than 120 firefighters from four companies.

We watched and worried, unwilling to believe anyone could be hurt. The fire was on top of the building, surely there would be time for the residents beneath to escape. I was anxious; gas fuels the heaters and stoves in our apartments. Still, these are new apartments with all the newfangled safety features. The apartments come complete with fire detectors, alarms in the master bedrooms, sprinklers, and just recently carbon dioxide detectors were installed. As we watched, the roof on number twelve was engorged by the blaze. The roof ceased to exist and began to resemble a volcanic cauldron. I could feel the heat even though we were 350 feet away. Black billowing smoke rose in swirling columns about the fire and blended with the night.

A young woman who lives in our building, had seen the fire in its earliest stages, had run over to building twelve to pull their fire alarm, but it didn’t work. It would seem the lightning had shorted all the building’s electricals. This woman then went to every door to alert the building’s residents.

I asked Ms Keogh, if we had to evacuate, what would you take from the apartment. She said, “You!” Ms Keogh did not want to remain among the gawkers. The smoke was bothering her. The fire raged seemingly out of control and she didn’t want to be in the way. There was nothing we could do to help. The professionals were on the job. Ms Keogh wanted to escape to a movie. She wanted to escape the smoke and tumult, to be out of the way. “I’m a pragmatist,” she said, “and I’m not worried about any of the other buildings, including ours.” The fire was about half an hour old when we climbed into the car and drove to the local theater, passing ambulances and rescue vehicles going the other way. We saw the 10:55pm showing of the new Amazing Spider-Man in 3D.

Waiting for the movie to start, I ruminated about the fire spreading and taking everything we owned. When a fire is imminent, there is no time to place all your possessions into the balance and pick wisely. I read about one fellow who ran back into a fire to rescue his cat. He died as a consequence, but the rescued cat lived. I heard the story of a woman artist who ignored her paintings in order to save her houseplants from a fire. I thought to myself, there really isn’t anything I own that cannot be replaced or done better. Thank goodness the Mona Lisa or the Warka Vase are not my responsibility.

The new Amazing Spider-Man in 3D was pretty good, but I am getting tired of films where special effects are the stars, where one is dazzled for two hours with things being destroyed by explosions and fires. Still, it helped free my mind from fearful obsessions, to escape the magnitude of the thought that life is plagued with random risks.

Returning at 1:45 in the morning, Big Oak Road was blocked. We pulled up to the blockade and asked questions. They had just finished putting the fire out, but were standing by to make sure there were no embers from which it could again erupt. While we were talking to the fellow who guarded our route, he received a message over his walkie-talkie that they were to open Big Oak Road to traffic. This brought us to the entry of our development, but they were not yet allowing vehicles to enter Harper’s Crossing. I explained to them that Ms Keogh needed to take medicine that she forgot to bring with her –  no deception, but the truth. We were allowed in, passing fire trucks going the other way.

Everything was there when we came back. The fire never came close to us. Still, the fire destroyed nine apartments in building twelve – although every newspaper had a different set of numbers. More were damaged by smoke and water. None of the residents were hurt. Thirty people had been displaced by the fire. Most had alternative places they could go, but six were set up in hotels and given money for food and clothing by the Red Cross. We in building eight, and all the other buildings, were untouched by the fire.
I have since learned that the roof had come down on fire-fighters evacuating the top floor. In all, seven firemen had been injured. Two were treated on the spot. Five were taken to local hospitals where two remain hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns, but their situation was not life-threatening. And this morning, the building had no shingles, no rafters, no beams. The roof had evaporated during the night. I looked up at the third story windows where there were still walls and could see the sky behind them.

 Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"