In those bleary-eyed minutes between 8:49 and 8:53 a.m., there was just an eerie calm. When I look back on it, I want to say I knew. I knew that those voices yelling outside were firemen’s, and my building was on fire; I knew that I grabbed all my belongings, including my cat, and heroically ran outside to help. It didn’t happen like that.
I was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt when my eyes opened. I looked at my watch to see how much longer I could sleep in. I noticed the frantic noise outside, but it didn’t register. I opened my bedroom door and called for Mitch, my cat. He usually comes running. He didn’t. That was weird.
I walked to the bathroom, directly across from the front door. I used the restroom in my apartment for the last time. I got two steps from the door when I heard the yelling (first) and the pounding (second).
“Fire Department! Get out, now! Fire! Now!”
Still didn’t register. I was half-asleep. There was no time to think — I went into autopilot and fumbled with the door lock. I felt like he would kick down the door for sure.
“OK, OK I’m coming; it’s OK I’m going to open it.”
At this point it’s like being thrown into a pool from behind with no warning while wearing a tuxedo and holding a martini glass.
“There’s a fire; I need you out! Out! Now! Go!”
“Can I get some shoes? I have a cat in there too! Can I get my cat?”
“No! Out! Go! Out! Now! Move it!”
This was Monday morning — it’s about 20 below zero. I moved to New Hampshire to work at the Valley News from Florida. I’ve been here three weeks. Now I’m standing barefoot on my porch, and to my right, flames are licking a slatted door that leads to the basement. My landlord, Paul Adley, is nearby and firefighters are running around but not yet fighting the blaze. It takes two seconds to start shivering uncontrollably. I couldn’t go anywhere on account of the barefoot thing. And I couldn’t make sense of it.
My apartment was behind me and I saw Adley’s van in front of me next to a fire truck, a few feet away.
I was told to get into the back of Adley’s van. I had to jump quick across the snow. There was nowhere to sit; it was full of tools and boxes. I had to maneuver on top of two of them and pull my feet up to my chest to have room. The windows were open and I was shaking, hard. Adley got in the front seat.
“My cat is in there. Could you go tell them my cat is in there?” I said.
Adley got out of the car and told the firemen that there were cats inside. They told him to get back into the car and move his vehicle up the street. When he got back in, I told him I was (expletive) freezing and could he please close the window.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
Adley is an older man, grandfatherly, with a thick New England accent.
“I did it,” he said.
“Wait. You started this fire?”
“I was thawing a pipe with a propane blowtorch. It caught fire and when I went to use the hose it was just a block of ice. I should’ve checked it first.”
He handed me two winter hats to put over my feet. He gave me his jacket. We were sitting in the car across the street watching everything I owned smoke and burn and sizzle.
He hadn’t called his wife yet. I think he was putting it off, but I needed shoes, bad. He took a breath before he did. On the phone he sounded old and broken.
“I was thawing a pipe…”He kept repeating that phrase.
He drove me to his house and gave me a pair of socks, some brown, faded Rockport dressing shoes and a feminine white sweater. I thanked him. When we drove back he asked a cop about the cats. He said they’d keep an eye out. The Adleys got me into another place that night. I don’t own much, but I’m alive, and the city has been exceptionally kind to me. This evening, I heard my cat is alive. A neighbor had found him wandering around — a nomad cat wearing a Florida tag.
I’ve learned that life is sometimes sharp but people are kind, and they can dull the rough edges. In quiet, lonely moments I’m sad, but I’m alive and I’m blessed.
Jon Silman is a fourth-year journalism student at UF.