For those of you that aren’t aware, on March 1, my apartment building caught on fire with me trapped inside. I was rescued by fire fighters from the 5th floor by climbing out of my broken bedroom window and down a fire ladder. The following is my recount of what happened.
I don’t remember a lot from that night. Just flashes really.
Black smoke is all around me. Thick. Choking me. It fills my mouth and throat like it’s the actual fire I am breathing. Burning me from the inside. Stinging my eyes. I can’t breathe or see.
The only vision I remember is looking out of my bedroom window as I was weakly banging on it to try and break through to the cold, fresh air outside. I see bright orange flames across the street. But if the building across the street is on fire, then why is my apartment filled with so much smoke?
I hear yelling in my building. I realize the flames are a reflection. It’s my building that is on fire. These flames are enormous.
I look down at my bare feet. They are red and covered with blood. They hurt, but why? Oh. I’m standing on glass. Before I can register why I’m standing on a million pieces of shattered glass, a hand pushes my head out of the window. I can breathe all of a sudden. Sort of. In between coughs. Someone puts something on my shoulder. Oh, it’s my purse. Thank you.
I’m in an ambulance. How did I get here?
What day is it?
What time is it?
The EMT tells me it’s almost 3am. “I need to call out of work I think. Where’s my phone? I need to tell the hospital I won’t be in today. I need to call my mom. Let me call my mom!”
He tells me I’m going to the hospital. No calls for now. I am angry when he says there’s no reason to wake my mother at 3am. They’re taking me to Mt. Sanai Hospital because they have a good burn unit the EMT says.
Am I burned?
“Put her on oxygen, her oxygen saturation is 84%.”
I’m on a stretcher in a dark room. I take off my nasal cannula. A nice man looks up the phone number to Lenox Hill Hospital.
“Hi, it’s Ashley. My apartment building burned down tonight. I’m in the hospital so I can’t come into work today.”
“Oh my gosh Ashley! It’s Rachel, I’m so sorr-” Click.
My mom doesn’t answer. Hers is the only phone number I know. Stupid technology. I used to know everyone’s number. I didn’t used to have it stored in my phone. Where’s my phone?
That’s my name. A nice police woman hands me something. My phone.
A stranger hugs me.
I’m in a wheelchair. Who am I talking to? Oh, my mom is on the phone. I tell her I don’t need oxygen. I take it off.
I’m getting an xray. “Can I see it?” I ask the radiology technician. I deem myself fine after reviewing my xray. I tell him I don’t need the oxygen.
Someone gives me a bag. It’s one of my friends from work. Oh good, Christine is here. I’m so tired. She puts the oxygen back in my nose.
I look up and see another familiar face, Pedram. Another friend. How did he know? He puts an apple, a granola bar, and a water in my hands. WATER!! I drink it all. He hands me another bottle. Christine has to leave to take her kids to school. I tell Pedram to leave because I know he should be at work. He tells me he’s working already.
I see his laptop out.
My phone buzzes. Pedram has set up a go fund me page. He’s not working. I tell him to go to work.
The ENT doctor puts a scope with a camera into my nose and down my throat. I feel like I’m choking again. I feel smoke in my throat. I remember the fire. He tells me to stop crying. He is talking but I can’t follow what he is saying.
Three fire marshalls are at my bed. There’s an investigation. I can’t grasp the words they’re saying. They talk to Pedram instead of me. I’m glad because I don’t really hear them. My carbon monoxide level is high. 24. The doctor says it should be 0. If it’s any higher they’ll have to put me in a hyperbaric chamber. What is this the 1960s? I laugh. Pedram looks at me funny. I text my friend, Chaundra, my joke.
I wake up because the oxygen is making my face and mouth so dry. Pedram hands me more water. He says the alarms of all the monitors are so loud.
Beep. Beep. Beep. I hadn’t noticed. He puts noise cancelling headphones on my head and tells me to watch Netflix.
Who is this guy?
Someone comes to put electrodes on my chest. Oh. I know this machine. An EKG. I crane my neck to read it. The T wave looks abnormal to me. I’m diagnosing myself again. I text my friend Chaundra that I have an abnormal EKG even though I’m the only one that has said so.
There’s a television hanging above me. The bottom of the screen says “Telemundo.” But there’s no noise. It’s on mute. I vaguely think, “Maybe I’ll learn Spanish.” I tell Pedram this. I think he laughs. I see myself on TV. I see the fire. It’s big. I tell Pedram I’m famous, pointing at Telemundo. He looks at the TV but the image of me is gone. He looks at me skeptically. He thinks I’ve lost it.
Maybe I have.
I want my mom. I text her to ask her if she’s working this weekend? I look up flights from Jacksonville to NYC on my Delta app.
Chaundra is here. Pedram leaves because he has to go to work. Didn’t I tell him that hours ago?
How long have I been in this bed?
Chaundra says something about me being a bad patient. It makes me laugh. I have to pee. I need to put my shoes on to walk. They put high heeled boots on my feet at some point before I climbed out of the window. Chaundra sarcastically tells me how great I look. I have heels, sweatpants, and a bright orange and brown sweater on. I laugh again. It feels good to laugh. Apparently my ugly yet comfortable striped sweater I fell asleep in the night before has been quite the discussion amongst my friends.
Another friend arrives. Gita. She has brought supplies. I’ve never been more excited to see wet wipes. I look at my hands. They’re black. I reek of smoke. I feel nauseous. Someone hands me a bucket.
I have a headache. Am I crying?
My face is wet.
My head is fuzzy.
A woman comes to talk with me. She’s been here a few times I think. Maybe I should talk to her. She asks me questions that I don’t understand. I look at my friends. They answer for me I think.
My phone is ringing. It’s a reporter. I’m angry at the reporter. How did she get my name and phone number?
Oh right, see Pedram, I’m not crazy. I told you I was famous. She must have seen me on Telemundo.
I tell Chaundra to leave because she has worked the night before and has to work again in a few hours. She doesn’t budge.
No one is listening to me.
She asks if I want coffee. No. Yes. Yes. No. No. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW IF I WANT COFFEE! I start crying. I can’t think straight. My carbon monoxide level is 7. “Okay good, so I’m discharged?” I ask the PA. She tells me we have to wait for the specialists to sign off first. Oh great, I know how this hospital bureaucracy works. I’m never getting out of here. I argue with her that they said as long as it was dropping I could go home….
“Home?” Do I have a home? I start to cry. I can’t breathe. I smell the campfire smell again. Where’s my bucket? I feel sick.
The man in the bed next to me is being discharged. I’m jealous. He asks if he can donate somehow. I look to my friends because again I’m at a loss on how exactly to formulate words.
Someone comes to draw my blood again for what seems like the millionth time. The IV in my arm hurts. Do the babies I work on feel this pain? Chaundra tells me my previous bedmate as donated $1,000 to the go fund me page. I don’t understand. She leaves so she can get some sleep before she has to be back at work.
My carbon monoxide level has fallen again. Surely they’ll let me leave now. Gita is trying to convince me not to leave without medical approval.
The PA tells me I’m allowed to leave. As she takes my tegaderm bandage off I think to myself, “that’s not how you remove that.” As Gita and I try to find our way out of the maze that is this hospital, I see signs for Cornell and NY Presbyterian Hospital. Not Mt. Sanai? I thought the EMT said Sanai. How did everyone find me if I was telling them I’m at a different hospital?
As we wait for an uber the hospital staff tells us, “You can’t sit there,” with no empathy.
My phone buzzes. Someone is talking about the fire. Who is this? They tell me the cause of the fire was an extension cord underneath a rug in the apartment two floors below mine. I have a vague memory of asking everyone if the fire was on the second floor. I ask this stranger on the phone if everyone survived. He said everyone except for the dog that lived in the second floor apartment. He woke some of the tenants up with his barking.
The fire marshall has deemed the building uninhabitable.
“What does that mean?”
“No one can live there.”
I feel Gita’s hand on my shoulder–I’m hysterically crying. What’s that shaking? Oh, it’s me.
I frantically look for the key Pedram gave me to his apartment. I come to the realization that I have no keys of my own.
We are at Pedram’s house. Gita tells me to take a shower.
The tub is black. I scrub my skin until it hurts. The shampoo bottle is black. I try to clean it. Gita brought me underwear. I’m so thankful for these people in my life. And even though it feels impossible to have tears left in my body, they run down my face like a waterfall.
I lay on the couch. There’s pizza. How did Gita know I wanted pizza? Did I tell her? I can’t remember.
I look at the clock. It’s 3pm.
It’s only been 12 hours.
A word to everyone in my life who has reached out or been here for me throughout this horrible experience. I will never be able to express my gratitude and sentiment for the calls, texts, flights, donations, apples, waters, underwear, housing, and much much more. I am blessed to have so many wonderful friends and family in my life. You have all have allowed me to begin to put my life back together. Thank you.