I woke up to the sound of my dog making weird half-barks towards the bedroom door. Annoyed, I did the natural thing to do when your dog starts barking at 3:30 AM - yelled at her to shut up. When she didn't, I started to yell at her again, until I noticed a sound.
"Oh," I thought, "The fire alarm's going off."
Thinking it was a faulty alarm, I opened the bedroom door, and immediately knew things were wrong. A thin veil of smoke was lifted over my hallway, so I shut the door, put on some clothes, and tried reopening the door. In the thirty seconds it must have taken me to throw on some pants and a sweatshirt, that veil had become a wall and blasted me in the face.
"Shit shit shit shit shit.", I think was the only appropriate response. I was now in action mode, so I took stock: Exits from the second story? None. Good way to get my dog out? None. Girlfriend? At work. Dog? Freaked out, but otherwise OK. Cell phone? check.
Now I had something I could do, so I picked up the phone and called 911 while I knocked the screens out of the windows and stuck my head out. My room was getting smoky now.
I had barely gotten the address of the rowhouse out to the operator when I saw my neighbor poke his head out of his house. He had come to see what was up, since there were now 20-foot flames shooting out the back windows of my house. This tends to make neighbors curious.
"You - ", I shouted to my startled neighbor, " I need to get my dog out. Get over here."
"I - I - I need my glasses!", he yelled, and scurried back into his house.
"Are there flames in the room you're in, sir?" repeated the 911 operator. I'd forgotten all about her.
"No, but it's fucking hot and smoky in here". I hadn't realized until I responded angrily to the poor operator trying to help me that I was fighting a rising tide of panic, and would need to calm down to make it out.
After what seemed an age, my neighbor ran out of his house again, this time with his glasses and, more importantly, his two roommates and a blanket. Before I could think about how much I was in a '20s movie cliche, I had tossed my 45-pound mutt, scratching and clawing, out the bedroom window and into the blanket below.
As I sat myself on the windowsill, trying to figure out the best way to hang and fall without breaking anything, firetrucks raced around the corner. When I told the firefighter who ran over to me that I was going to jump, he told me to stop being stupid and wait for a ladder.
A minute later, I was standing on the ground, watching 2 ladders full of firefighters busting the crap out of my house.
The support that all of my neighbors, whom I barely knew, offered my girlfriend and I was truly humbling. She had been working an overnight shift, but I'd paged her and she was back at the scene with me. We had a half dozen offers of places to sleep, and people were taking turns trying to control my 9-month-old pup for me while I wandered around in a daze.
At about 5:00 that morning, two Red Cross volunteers came and visited us. They gave us a $200 gift card so we could buy coats, made sure we had a place to stay, and generally did a great job of calming us down and telling us stories of similar situations. I owe a debt of gratitude to the two elderly volunteers who came at such a crazy early time of day, and treated us with respect and caring while we were clearly both out of our minds. I used to dislike donating to the Red Cross because it felt faceless and too big; I won't ever feel that way again.
The weirdest part of the whole experience came a few hours later, when I went to the grocery store before our insurance adjuster came over. I walked into the Safeway, where I'd been a thousand times before, but stopped just after the entrance. I was blown away by the stuff - so much stuff, and I suddenly had nothing.
My face was still covered in soot, I smelled like chemical fire, and I was wearing the only two articles of clothing I still owned. I felt like an alien on planet yuppie, suddenly much different from all of the people around me.
What do you buy in the grocery store when all you owned has just been incinerated? I suspect the answer varies, but for me it was Wheat Thins, warm caps for myself and my girl, dog food, and coffee.
Finally, around 9:00, the insurance adjuster came and wrote us a preliminary $3000 check. This is the point in the story where I implore everyone who reads this to go get renters' insurance if you don't have it - it saved our butts. $120 in insurance is likely to shortly pay us about $22,000 - a better investment is impossible to imagine.
First off, definitely make sure you have renter's insurance. If we hadn't had it, I don't know what we would have done. I spent a lot of time after the fire wondering what a person with less income than us and no renter's insurance would do - they'd be completely devestated.
Second, turn your damn stove off.
Last, I can't express how thankful I am for all the help that we have received since the fire. At times, it's been overwhelming how much everyone wants to help us. I'm something of a solitary person, and I've had to get used to people giving me things. It's really made me appreciate what people go through in a disaster, especially people who don't have many resources to fall back on.