Sunday, November 27, 2011

I bellow my flames: An incident of fire


What jumps to your mind? A blue tongue of a Bunsen burner?
For me, a phenomenon jumps to mind.

I was witness to a phenomenon.

Don’t mistake me to be pyrophobic to be uttering words with such a solid emphasis, but it was a phenomenon. It was the sort of flame that I have not seen this close, this destructive, this completely capable of altering my insight. Small scale was a word I would not use, even if it seems appropriate. It wasn’t small scale for me. For me, it was a phenomenon.

The day started uninteresting enough. I was stressed for my final exams, and studying was going nowhere. Unable to juggle my academics, being home after so many days and the radio show, I was clearly collapsing under the strain. I gave up trying to reason things out and decided to take a nap in the hopes that it would alleviate the mild signs of stress that were beginning to descend, hallmarks of the final season. I woke up late and grumpy. I wasn’t exactly saying thanks to anybody this season. Exams? No thanks. There was nothing to be thankful for.

I woke up to a phone call. By the time the mobile phone was off, I heard mother: ‘there seems to be a fire’. I rushed to the balcony. A fire was raging outside, spitting up flames and smoke was roping its way to the night sky. It was a sight to see. I stood up on a balcony chair for a better view as I heard brother repeat that he was scared. The fire was truly terrifying. I couldn’t ascertain if it was spreading, my brain was just numb: all I saw was a definitive presence of the fire. The chair was not balancing me well enough, and as I wobbled in the night air, I heard strict instructions.

‘Hey, get down!! Get down NOW and head out to the front. We’re trying to control the fire.’ It was a Police Officer with his flashlight. As I rushed inside to let everyone know, my heart was throbbing.

‘Quick, fire, evacuate.’ What do you take with you?

What becomes important? In that one second, everything had changed. As I sensed the importance of the moment, nothing mattered more than family. My family, a cell phone and—at the last instant, a camera. That’s all that mattered as I rushed out of the house, following many other residents with backpacks, running away. The moment was eerie. There was only a raging fire in the background and small lamp posts. The rest was darkness and the babble of people. The rest was all of footsteps and shadows. Faces didn’t matter, what mattered was being calm about this.

Many people walked away, in many directions, huddling in groups. But the interesting thing was—there was another group. Another group of people that wasn’t quite running away. They lingered. They lingered with fire in their blood. They lingered to witness something they knew was not ordinary. They wanted to stay and see what happened. They were not the confused lot; they were at the forefront, spectators of the fire with their mobile phone cameras and video recorders. The police had cordoned off the area, but they tried their best to stay within limits as the terrifying evening unraveled itself. These everyday people became journalists in that moment: they became the photographers and the media professionals. And the firefighters became the true heroes worth watching.

As I tried to push myself into the bunch that lingered, I thirsted to record everything. It was a new, acute sort of excitement—a realization that this wasn’t an everyday phenomenon, and that this was worth recording. I didn’t feel a sense of danger, for I knew I was at a safe distance. There was only that much I could do. I couldn’t run into the fire and help them calm it, but I could at least witness it from a safe distance. Now, I was completely awake and caught up. The adrenalin rush induced by the gripping atmosphere as we collectively stood witness was something beyond description. I was more than alive, I felt acutely conscious of every tiny detail. I knew the people around me without knowing them, my mind memorized where all the apartments were, what was burning, and how everyone was moving. The atmosphere was charged and shifting. The undaunted fire was recorded from various different angles until the police sternly warned me to stay back.

As the fire got slightly out of hand, we were further instructed to completely evacuate even the lawns and move to the high school ground next door. The cold night air held uncertainty as people shifted about, talking loudly. The parking lots were full of people. As we rushed to the car to get out of here, we heard that there wasn’t a way out for cars. Forced to park them in our lots, we stood around, waiting for further instructions. The Sheriff’s car was here, and the fire truck was flashing its bright lights in the distance. I suddenly felt lonely, even with family. If the fire spread, it would hit my apartment in minutes and everything that we have ever bought could be reduced to ashes within seconds. The fire now was a fierce, undaunted orange glow in the distance, blazing off the rooftops—that was all I could see. I moved to the high school grounds for a better view, simultaneously updating my facebook and twitter with updates of what was happening. It was not a foolish thing to do. I wanted the world to know currently, this part was not safe. Please, stay away. It was the inner journalist in me awakening.

I watched the fire blazing from the grounds, now from a farther distance. It was all a nebulous glow. I only felt the cold night air settle on my skin and make me shiver. I shivered not just with the cold, but also in fear. My brother and I had split apart here. I was looking for him. He called my cell phone.

‘Come up to the stadium, you can see much better from here. You can see everything that’s happening.’ I took the cue and rushed there with the rest of the family. The stadium held only a handful of people who seemed to have discovered its benefits. They were high up, privileged by a vantage point that unraveled the entire dynamic scenes before them. It was something that looked like it was from a movie.

Smoke everywhere. The fire truck, the firefighters. The hoses and the water. The endless fire engulfing and burning the wood down to ashes. Everything was visible here, a panorama, a terrifying landscape unlike anything I had ever seen. As I stood there, high up with a dozen others, I felt I was part a shared fate. As the scene before me changed from millisecond to millisecond, clearly visible and dangerous, I recorded it all. It was something that was truly unfortunate, but an unforgettable experience nonetheless.

The cold night air hit us as we stood high up there, in a solitary world that seemed to be somehow distant. We were spectators. My hands fumbled in the cold, but I was beginning to grasp the severity of the situation. We stood there till the fire was calmed a little. There was such insight to the moments I stood there. Many, many thoughts flashed through my mind. I perceived life as a gift. I felt special. I felt fortunate. I felt fear. I felt insecure. I felt thrill. I felt anxiety. I felt awe.

As the night air became a blur of smoke, I knew the fire was calming. The police had cut off the electricity connection; all apartments were bathed in darkness. Multiple phone calls were visiting us and puncturing my involvement. A kind friend offered to be host. We were all shivering in the cold, and there was nothing more we could do. We walked to his house, away from our apartments, shaken by how unbelievable this evening had gotten.

A while later, as I calmed my nerves to Hindustani music and tea like nothing had ever happened, I looked at myself. I was replaying the photographs I had taken just now, they were reminding me how fragile life was. And just this afternoon, I had been thankless for my situation, my existence—worried about exams. My perception was so shallow. Right now, I was simply grateful to be alive and unaffected, as must have everybody in our apartment.

I’m back home now. It’s been five hours since the fire. It’s nearly midnight. The power is back. But the damage is apparent. My internet is not working. The parents are calling Vonage phone connection. There is a deathly calm, like an aftermath. A couple of police are hanging around. And I know that most of us have gone home.

Many people proved to be courageous tonight, and I’m proud of how they’ve behaved. I’m thankful for how nobody was hurt, and how nobody died. I am thankful for the immense courage of the firefighters. But most of all, I am thankful that everyone who matters to me is alive. Sometimes I forget that that—just that, is enough for a lifetime. I’ll not forget this evening. 

 My account of the incident: 12:33 AM on November 26th 2011

Update: The cause of the conflagration was a kitchen fire that engulfed and invaded an apartment. The fire massively spread to the neighboring apartments soon afterwards. Nobody suffered injuries, the only injury is to property, thanks to the timely manner in which the fire was handled by the fire department. I'm grateful to them. The videos I took were released to ABCNews Channel and aired.


ER Ramachandran said...

One can feel the raw fear,family holding on to each other in times of gnawing fear of the real and fear of the unknown; well narrated and more importantly a crisis well handled..
crises , we always feel happens to others.. the reality strikes hard when you face it face to face.

praneshachar said...

nice write up one can imagine the pain anxiety relief after seeing near and dear and wonderful timely work by the fire department. more than that wonderful presence of mind by you capture video live and sharing god is great no injuries to person loss of property can be recouped loss of lives can't be