This was a pretty terrifying hour-and-a-half, being trapped inside a 37th floor apartment by myself, even though, as it turned out, my life was fairly safe the whole time… Counting my blessings today though, and would like to say a big heartfelt thank you to the brave New York City firefighters, our equally brave building staff, 911 operators, all emergency responders and all friends and strangers who offered their support. And to send my deepest sympathy to the loved ones of those who, tragically, suffered the worst.
Here’s how it went down for me.
I woke up pretty late yesterday and realized that my MacBook Air had crashed again. So, I made an appointment with a Genius Bar, got up, brushed my teeth, and pondered my next step. I took up meditation a few months ago, and have been practicing diligently every morning, with very few exceptions. I had already sat down to transcend when, all of a sudden, I felt like having a cup of coffee first. As I went to the kitchen, I noticed a white cloud enveloping the building. We live on the 37th floor of The Strand, and often see fog or low-hanging clouds roll into Midtown in an almost magical way. So, I went out on the balcony to take a photo of the pretty fog but realized that it was smoke — white and still relatively light, coming from an apartment straight below ours, about 15 stories down. I no longer felt like taking pictures and went back inside, closing the balcony door. The smell of burning penetrated our living room just from that quick stepping out on the balcony.
I couldn’t tell at first how bad it was, and called downstairs to ask what was going on. The front desk had a busy signal, and I tried again. This time a doorman picked up; only he was trying to place a 911 call. I quickly hung up and evaluated the options. I could immediately run downstairs if I got dressed quickly. I looked out the window again trying to estimate the strength of the fire, and for some reason decided that it looked like something fairly minor. Perhaps someone forgot their Sunday brunch frittata in the oven or a toaster caught on fire… a few puffs with a fire extinguisher should take care of it, right? Wrong.
When we first moved in, we had a fire safety plan hanging on our door but now it’s been gone for a while. I didn’t think I could locate it now.
From the time I first noticed the fire to the time when the hallways on our 37th floor filled with smoke, it must have taken just about 5-10 minutes. I heard the elevators make their stuck noise and fire alarms starting to activate like some audio dominos throughout the building, and knew that I had missed my evacuation window. I saw the first fire truck rushing toward the building, the police cars blocking the traffic, and assumed that it was now a matter of minutes until the fire was under control. Then the smoke outside our windows turned darker.
All of a sudden, things turned surreal. It felt as if my brain split into two halves: an extremely rational one that felt worried but safe and the one that started to panic. The rational half knew the following things: (1) the building is fire-proof, (2) it is statistically safer to stay inside than trying to escape from a high-rise, (3) it is a very long way down from the 37th floor, and (4) our building has some structural peculiarities that might complicate the escape.
More on the last point: The Strand is a very skinny and very tall 40-story edifice, with only 6 apartments per floor. The elevator shafts and the two adjacent fire escape staircases make up its core. The upward airflow inside of them is so strong in the winter that we always put a towel under the front door to stop the loud howling of that internal wind. I feared that this shaft would just turn into a giant chimney for the fire below. In addition to that, in summer time the door frames expand and the doors get stuck. Our own door isn’t too bad but I’ve heard our next-door neighbors struggling with theirs many times. I was not willing to take that chance on my way down. And finally and most grossly, whenever anyone smokes inside their units, the cigarette stench spreads like crazy through the bathroom ventilation shaft, infusing our bedroom with an enchanting ashtray perfume in a matter of seconds. There was a whole war between smokers and non-smokers about that on BuildingLink recently…
I started by closing all doors inside the apartment and putting wet towels under the front and the other doors. I put a wet rag over the second-hand smoke hole in the bathroom. I started filling the bathtub with water – I don’t know why. And I called 911. Once I heard myself giving less than clear explanations (the operator had to clarify a lot: “Sir, which borough are you in?”, “43rd Street? East or West?”), I realized that my panicking brain half had taken over.
I just wanted to know what to do: try to leave? go onto the balcony? lay in the bathtub? pray? The fire department’s first advice was to stay calm… And that seemed difficult. However, the 911 operators were truly excellent. They told me exactly what to do — don’t leave the apartment, make sure the front door is unlocked, don’t try to hide in the bathroom but stay in the room with least smoke, make sure you can hear knocking on the door or instructions from the hallway from wherever you are. They did help me stay calm a lot.
But the smoke kept seeping in. Now I couldn’t really see past the window because of its clouds rising outside. I called James who had flown to California just the night before. And on the phone with him I let myself panic. My panicking brain half only paid attention to the senses. In addition to seeing and smelling the smoke, I also heard smoke detectors on every floor and cries for help from other apartments. One of them might have been even coming from our next-door neighbor who couldn’t get his apartment door to open — for better or for worse… My panic began with doubts: I know that the building is supposed to be fireproof but why then is it taking so long to extinguish the fire? What if the building collapses? Did I make the right call by staying inside?? James assured me that the building won’t collapse. And my extremely rational brain half agreed. But I don’t think that anyone who lived through 9/11 in NYC can help but have such thoughts rush through their mind. Then James also asked me whether I could feel it getting any warmer. That wasn’t so helpful…
I think it might be important to let yourself panic in a situation like that, just for a little bit. Because after a few minutes the fear became more tolerable. I called 911 again for an update; they said the fire crews were still working in the building and took my information again. The smoke outside the window has gotten a little lighter again but it still kept coming up in plumes. I am so happy that I did not see any outside photos or videos of the building burning at that time — I didn’t realize that those apartments below us were literally ablaze, and in this case ignorance was, perhaps, not exactly a bliss but at least it kept my heart inside my chest for a while longer.
I kept wondering how much time had elapsed but kept forgetting to look at the clock. It must have been over an hour at that point. Later they said it took about 1 hour and 45 minutes to put out the fire. Finally, the clouds of smoke started to get thinner and whiter. The smoke alarms in the building still kept going off like crazy. The Fire Department operator had said that if I can get to the balcony safely, it is a better place to be in terms of fresh air. Just in case I would have to run through the flames after all or to go out on the cold balcony, I turned my attention to the wardrobe, picking out the least flammable, in my opinion, items. I gave preference to brighter colors to make it easier to be discovered. Extremely dramatic, I know… It all seems so ridiculous in retrospect but, I guess, the brain has to occupy itself with something. (I still did not feel like meditating.) The smoke was decreasing outside but became more irritating inside, and I tied a bandana over my nose and mouth. I realized that all my shoes were in the living room which was filled with smoke worse than the bedroom where I was waiting out. I was on the phone with James again who told me not to worry about the shoes. I was very worried about the shoes…
Before I got to the shoes, there was loud banging on the front door. The firemen arrived on our floor and said the fire was out, it was now safe to open the windows. Our next-door neighbor was trapped inside his apartment, unable to open his stuck door. They knocked it down. We were safe.
Other neighbors were out in the hallway, sharing their experience. I wasn’t the only one who found it terrifying, it turned out…
Two of the neighbors said they had tried opening the fire escape door but immediately closed it because it plumed with thick black smoke. There were black smoke marks on all elevator doors.
The firefighters praised us for staying inside. Most deaths happen from smoke, not the fire, they said. One of them said that several residents were found dead in the stairwell. He quickly corrected himself to say they were “cardiac” when they were brought to the ambulances. Very sadly, one of the guys died a few hours later. The other one was reported in stable condition. They just had gotten married.
The firefighters kept repeating how crucial it is to stay inside your apartment if you live in a modern fireproof building. Apparently many people perish while trying to escape, clutching pets in their arms and many slip and fall on smoke-covered stairs.
As the firefighters and, soon, the police kept making their multiple rounds through every floor, making sure that every unit was ok, I kept asking whether they knew the cause of the fire. No one did. I asked the firefighter who came in to check out our apartment if we were allowed to leave the building yet. He replied: “Not for a while – there’s no reason to leave NOW…” A little firefighter humor. The elevators were out and the stairs were wet. I had already turned on NY1, our building was on the news. Now I saw how bad the flames were. NY1 was interviewing one of the residents who witnessed the fire from her window across the street. She said it was terrifying. The fireman and I exchanged understanding glances and laughed. “PoorNatalie,” he said smiling. He also said that the elevators went out just as they got to the building, and so they had to crawl up twenty flights of stairs. (I asked “Would you really have taken the elevators in a burning building?” and he said “Of course, WE would.”) We are incredibly lucky to have the best firefighters in the world.
A short while later we were allowed to leave the building. The elevators would be out for a while and the stairs were extremely wet, so they told us to be very careful. Staircase A was much worse than staircase B. I took this photo on the 37th floor. The layer of soot is really bad.
Friends and relatives kept calling to check up on me once I posted some photos of the ordeal on Facebook. I noticed the cup of coffee that I made in lieu of my morning meditation and had completely forgotten about. It was cold and tasted amazing. I realized I was starving and made myself some eggs. I was surprised that we still had electricity and gas… It did feel like we just lived through a small war.
When I finally went downstairs, the floors where the fire had raged still felt very warm. I was told that if I leave I won’t be able to come back for at least a few hours. Not that I wanted to… Walking 37 floors upstairs to come back to be all by myself in a smelly smoker of an apartment did not seem appealing. I stayed with my friend Jane who expertly treated my mild PTSD symptoms with a bottle of cognac.
Here are some other shots from our 37th floor after smoke cleared. Entrance to the “bad” fire escape:
You can see how bad the smoke was by the black marks on the fire escape door on our floor:
The laundry room:
The smoke was still coming out from the burned-down apartment below for a while.
Before I fell asleep at 2am on her pullout couch, I looked up the Facebook profile of our neighbors who got trapped by the smoke, and cried, even though I don’t believe we had ever met.
I’m about to leave work and go back to the building so that I can air out the apartment and see if I can stay there tonight. Residents are allowed back as long as their doors haven’t been breached or windows broken. There was a lot of broken glass, apparently. Before leaving our place yesterday, I put this note on the door:
Then as I was opening the door to walk out, a Department of Buildings Crew was on our floor. I asked them what they were doing. One of them said: “Just waiting for you to leave so that we can break your door!” :-)