By Meredith Thompson
In Virginia, we are blessed to have four distinct seasons, and we often get a brief taste of seasons within seasons. In early November 2015, summer made one last visit with temperatures in the mid-70s and keeping above 60 in the evenings.
On Thursday after work, I made a visit to the gym for a group Body Flow class as I had been doing for weeks. When I arrived home, my husband and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner out. We came home happy with full bellies as we both prepared for Friday morning. With the temperatures staying so warm, my husband decided he would sneak in a mountain bike ride early the next morning using some new rechargeable bike lamps he had just purchased.
Bed Time Routine
As we got ready for bed, we put our 3 mixed breed pups in the closed-in porch room just off the living room. We normally put them in the basement at night to keep them from sneaking onto our couches in the wee hours. Since it was so mild, we decided to let them enjoy the views from the windows on the porch.
As I got ready for bed, I knew I should take a shower since I had been to the gym, but I put it off thinking I’d wake early and grab one in the morning. Not wanting to dirty any pajamas and knowing we normally changed our sheets on Saturday mornings, I got into bed in nothing but my birthday suit, which was a rare occurrence but also very freeing.
We plugged in our phones and set our alarms for the morning. With a kiss goodnight and a warm snuggle, we drifted off to sleep.
Smoke Filled the Room
Around midnight, we awoke to loud noise, almost like someone had dropped a pile of 2x4s on the ground. We both sat up and I don’t remember who asked, but “What was that?” was definitely muttered. My husband got out of bed to turn on the light as I sat up holding the covers over myself thinking a burglar might be trying to make his way in. My husband turned on the lights and we noticed a faint fog in the air. “Shit!” he exclaimed, “I think something’s on fire.”
I groggily made my way to the bathroom to put on my leopard print fuzzy bathrobe. My husband was downstairs trying to figure out where the smoke was coming from. I made my way back to our bedroom to grab my phone just in case there really might be a fire.
When I made it back to our room, a plume of black smoke poured from the vent next to the bed. I grabbed my phone and yelled “It’s coming from the basement. We need to get outside now.” I made my way down the stairs through porch room and got our dogs safely out onto our deck where I made the call to 911. All I could remember was giving them our address and faintly hearing the sirens engage from the station not far from our house. Within minutes the trucks pulled up with sirens blaring and lights flashing. The windows in our basement had cracked from the heat and smoke began to pour out.
Chaos and the moment I flashed a firefighter…
The firefighters entered our home from the back door. Their suits and masks terrified our dogs, and they tried to dart back into their home. Without leashes, I attempted to drag all three dogs to the front of the house and into the car to keep them safe. By this time, the sirens were off but at least 3 trucks and an ambulance were out front with engines humming. I picked up the smallest dog, a 30 pound beagle mix, grabbed the collar of the most scared shepherd mix, and spoke softly but firmly to the third pup, a 60 pound Catahoula mix. “Ok, guys, we are going to go for a ride.”
As I opened to gate to the front yard to the chaos of giant vehicles and flashing lights, someone in one of the rigs dropped some gear onto the siren switch. The beagle writhed in my arms, the shepherd wriggled out of her collar, but my boy stayed right next to me knowing that I’d keep him safe. My leopard print robe was now almost entirely open to the crew of firefighters outside, but I eventually got the pups to the car where my Catahoula sat as captain in the driver’s seat keeping an eye on the action, the beagle slept in the passenger seat, and the shepherd hunkered in the floorboards of the back seat.
I made my way over to my neighbor’s yard and sat on their stoop, wide eyed and heart pounding, barefoot with my fuzzy robe clenched tightly. My husband stayed with the firefighters to help tell them what was in the basement and where to go. After 4 hours that felt like 5 minutes and an eternity at the same time, they told us we could go back in to collect some things. The fire was small and was under control in less than an hour, but the heat had melted a hole in our ductwork sending thick smoke throughout our house. They had set up industrial fans at all of the entrances to blow out the smoke.
“We are so lucky,” I thought, “just some smoke damage that will clear in a few days.” One of the firefighters told me to grab enough clothes to get me through the night but that we wouldn’t be able to stay in our home for likely weeks. “Weeks?” resounded in my head. As I made my way through the front door, the industrial fan blew my robe open to expose all my business to anyone paying attention.
After throwing together a laundry basket filled with work clothes, not enough underwear, and a bunch of random socks, the firefighter walked us back out and asked if we had somewhere to stay since most hotels wouldn’t allow all 3 dogs. I called my mom at 4:00 AM, all 3 mutts in tow and my assortment of random clothes, as I began driving towards her house an hour away. She was out of town and agreed that of course we could stay in her house. It would just be a few days, I thought. We would get back to our routine of exercise and happy evenings in our home in no time.
My Epiphany and New Reality
On Monday, I met with a fire inspector from the insurance company. He asked me to walk him through my home and to share the whole story. The inspector asked if we heard our fire alarms go off. I told him that we had them but hadn’t changed the batteries since we moved in because they never beeped indicating that the battery was low. How had I not thought of that until now? He unhooked the alarm in the hallway outside of our bedroom and tilted it toward me revealing that there were no batteries included.
When I showed him the bedroom where I saw the black smoke pouring from the vent, I expressed my frustration that our bedroom had gotten the most damage outside of the basement. All of my clothes would need to be washed. How do you even wash a mattress? He responded with eyes locked on me, “I’m not sure you realize how close you were to losing your lives. If you hadn’t of woken up when you did, it’s very likely that you and your husband would have suffocated from the smoke within minutes.”
No, I hadn’t realized that. The thought haunted me for days, weeks, to this day.
I also didn’t realize the extent of the damage from one small fire. The investigation revealed that the rechargeable batteries in my husband’s bike lamps had exploded, which explained the loud noise that alerted us that something was wrong. The heat from the explosion melted everything around it on my husband’s work bench, which included some electronics made of plastic. The thick black smoke damage was extensive. We were out of our home for 6 weeks, though one contractor had quoted that it would take 6 months. I owe that shorter timeframe to my husband who began working on the home immediately.
Would have, could have, should have…
If we hadn’t had such warm weather, would we have put the dogs in the basement, where they surely would have perished? Would my husband have planned his ride for the afternoon instead of the early morning? Would I have put on some pajamas? The answer is anyone’s guess, but I’m a firm believer in not looking back on the what-ifs. We made it through, stronger and more appreciative of our pets, our home, and each other.
But I do recommend keeping batteries in your smoke alarms and your phone nearby while you sleep. If you have pets or small kids, keep your car keys by the door or bed so you can keep them out of harm’s way. And why not throw in to wear pajamas to bed or at least keep some undies and shoes close by in case of an emergency.