The Grapevine Art and Soul Salon
Presentations: Anne Lovett
Is That All There Is?
I had a relative once, who, when she was still drinking, liked to sing that old Peggy Lee song—the one with the refrain, “Is that all there is?” The words went something like this—“if that’s all there is [to life] then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze, and have a ball ....” The singer goes on to describe watching her house burn down and then asks, “Is that all there is to a fire?”
There always seemed something wrong with that line, but I never understood why until one morning in April, two years ago. Shortly past 7:00 a.m. that day, struggling past the fog of sleep, I became aware of an odd sound outside--the crackle of rain on leaves? I’d just put my feet on the floor when the doorbell rang an urgent blinga blinga blinga, the ring of my retiree neighbor Steve. But at this hour?
Good Lord, Steve, what now? I glanced out at my car—it looked okay. I scrambled into my kimono and flung open the front door. Steve wasn’t there, but to my astonishment, neighbors were running around helter-skelter. “What is it?” I called to Jan Smith, the red-haired dynamo who lived next door.
“There’s a fire!” she yelled. “Here?” “No, over there.” She pointed straight ahead.
I hurried out onto the deck. Directly across the street on the ridgetop where Building 900 stood, a solid wall of flame leaped, roared, crackled with ferocity. Jan, hands to her incredulous face, repeated, “Oh my God, Oh my God.” I stood mute. How had it grown so quickly—blazing into this inferno truly towering over our heads? The flames were leaping to the trees, torching branches dehydrated from drought.
Then I heard the heart-stopping calls: “Help! Help!” A man’s voice. A woman’s voice. They kept calling, over and over from behind the blazing wall, more awful for sounding so calm. Neighbors looked at each other, feeling powerless, horrified. Jan yelled, “Hang on, they’re coming.” Fire trucks rolled into the complex but kept going up the hill because the fierce flames hid from them the couple trapped on the third-floor balcony. White, acrid smoke billowed toward arriving helicopters. Steve yelled, “They’re going to jump!” He and two younger men ran across the street, clambered up the retaining wall, and ran up the hill toward the man and woman now plunging from the balcony, wrapped only in the bedsheets that had covered them as they’d peacefully slept, not an hour before.
One neighbor hurriedly found quilts to cover the pair, in shock from the 40-foot fall, possibly with broken bones. Jan flagged down an arriving EMS vehicle, directing them to the spot where the two had landed. The emergency personnel took over. EMTs lifted the young man and young woman onto stretchers and left for Grady Hospital, sirens wailing. More fire trucks arrived, as well as police, who told us we might have to evacuate.
My neighbor Toni said she’d spotted the fire that morning while walking her dog and had put in the alarm. When the talk spread about evacuation, she didn’t waste time. She leashed her dog, put her cat in the carrier, and settled them in her car. She phoned her husband, who’d left for work very early. I woke my daughter Virginia, urging her to get dressed. I dressed, packed my laptop, took it to the car, then got out my cat carrier for Boo, who’d been on the patio watching the commotion.
Boo wasn’t on the patio. The police urged everyone outside, and I raced around the condo, looking under the beds and in the closets. I didn't see him. I crossed my fingers that he was safe outside and walked out to join the neighbors.
Virginia had the forethought to bring cushions for the cool, damp ground. I stood, too keyed up to sit. An elderly neighbor brought out a lawn chair to wait in. The firemen hooked up a hose to the hydrant in front of our building and sprayed water toward the fire in order to keep it from advancing through the woods toward us. Cell phones seemed glued to neighbors’ ears. My older daughter called—she’d heard the news going to work. I reassured her we were all right and told her to call her father and brother.
People were allowed to leave the complex but not to re-enter. The city street leading to the entrance was blocked off in both directions, and only emergency vehicles and media could come and go. TV crews arrived—easy to spot, reporters were the ones all dressed up. Jennifer Leslie from station 11 Alive asked us a few questions, and we told her to talk to Toni. Cameramen filmed us ("Horrified Neighbors Watch") while we tried not to notice. Toni would appear on that evening's six o’clock news. The WSB reporter, who’d set up his command center in front of our condo, talked to Jan, who would also appear on the six o’clock news. I spotted one reporter, probably from the Atlanta Journal/Constitution—an older man with beard and notebook, wearing khakis and shirtsleeves. Choppers hovered ceaselessly.
The Red Cross truck arrived, set up in our parking lot, and began to dispense water to the firefighters. They made sure that people who’d lost their homes had somewhere to go. Trucks arrived with porta-johns. Other trucks arrived with bulldozers and demolition equipment. Atlanta Gas Light crews arrived with a Bobcat.
One woman wandered aimlessly about in her pajamas and robe, dazed.
More fire trucks came—from Cobb County, from the City of Atlanta. Even the DeKalb fire chief drove up in a white SUV.
Water poured and poured, but the flames kept raging until little by little, the fire finally began to come under control.
Someone looked at a watch. We’d been standing there three hours, shivering and shaking, and it wasn't from the cold. The heat from the fire had drastically altered the fifty-something degrees temperature. At 10:30 we were told we would not have to evacuate. Virginia and I finally came back inside and had some breakfast, and Boo came out of hiding—from where, I could never determine. I called my parents and brother in case anything might appear on the noon news.
I found that Virginia had packed a dozen favorite videos to escape with, in case we’d had to leave. The phone rang and it was a local handyman, who’d been scheduled to do some work for Jan, wondering why she’d called and left a frantic message for him not to come. I was the only one he could reach to find out what was happening.
The crews fought the blaze all day. By afternoon, only two units out of eleven in that building were left standing. The demolition crews bulldozed those units down.
I walked up the hill with Jan Smith that afternoon, passing burly, smoke-smudged firefighters on the way down for water, food, and rest. We could go no closer than the first building on the hill, as fire trucks blocked the way and yellow tape was stretched across the road.
Later that evening, after the firefighters left, I went back again. Neighbors stood around talking, still trying to make sense of it. I met gentle Kathy, who’d lost her home. Still in shock, she was trying to comprehend what had happened. Her large brown eyes filled with tears as she told how the firemen had come to get her and her husband out, not even letting them check on their dogs. “The fireman used bad language,” she said. “He was rough, but I know now that he was trying to save our lives.”
It wasn’t over. The next day, the rubble began to smolder again. A fire truck came back and doused the pile with water for about an hour. The hill drew neighbors like a magnet. I returned that day toward sundown and met a man taking pictures. He said that his son, his son’s wife, and their two-months-old baby had been rescued by the firefighters. The couple who’d lived in the townhouse had gone to the beach for a spring break week and had nothing to come home to. Cars that had fronted the fire were coated with pollen and ashes, their windshields crackled, bumpers twisted. In the back seat of one of the cars sat a box of neat, colorful file folders that had not made it to the workplace that morning.
Neighbors exchanged information. We found that the two who jumped were upgraded from critical to serious to stable condition. The young man was going to have back surgery, but they were going to be all right. Would he ever teach tennis again? People regretted that we didn't know more of our neighbors. Someone talked about needing to have more safety meetings.
The next day I went to take photos to show my parents. A man out watering his plants in the building next door invited me to come up the stairs to his level and shoot from there. He said he was home when it happened. I snapped a few pictures from his deck, walked down, and saw a poignant sight—two potted plants, still green, on one of the demolished stair landings, along with an overturned pet dish.
Was that all there was? No. Saturday morning, a fire truck came roaring down our street. Neighbors popped out at once to see what was happening. “We don't need this,” they said. “We haven’t slept in days.” The hook and ladder followed, then the fire chief. Then they turned around and went back. Apparently it was a false alarm. Thank God.
We all received a report from the Fire Department, concluding the blaze had apparently started in the dry grass outside. An early-morning smoke while walking, a flipped butt off a balcony, out a car window . . .? This wasn’t a force of nature. This was human carelessness--or malevolence. Time has passed, and the unit has been rebuilt. Some neighbors have moved back, and some have moved away. One thing is certain--there are those whose lives will never be the same again.
Is that all there is to a fire? Hardly. That’s what’s wrong with the song. What happened on that April day reminds us that no matter how bad our situation or how good, there is always the potential for sudden, rapid, change, and life can go from humdrum to large in an instant. Common life is never all there is.
Copyright ©2006 Barbara Knott · All Rights Reserved
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