Experiencing a Flash Fire
In the early morning hours of February 25 — 3:04 to be exact — my life as I knew it was forever changed. As most of you know, I have a pretty strict writing schedule that I keep. I work for my school district during the day, and then when I come home I make/order dinner, take my shower, and then go upstairs to write— okay, really I’ll look at Facebook first— but then I’ll write for a little while. I try to be in bed around 8:30. Then I wake up around 2:00 and write until time for school. On the weekends, it’s a free for all. I still try and keep my middle-of-the night hours so my body is used to being up and writing, I just have more time during the day to write. James has always been very cool about me being upstairs in my writing room while he stays downstairs and gives me space.
On that Saturday evening, February 24, I had JUST finished final edits of book 2 in my Sullivan Sisters series. It was later than I had planned— around nine or nine-thirty I believe. I sent James a text at 9:36 telling him I’d finished my edits (he was downstairs) but that I still needed to go on Facebook and see what was going on with the world (haha). By the time I finished scrolling Facebook, it was around eleven. I wrestled with whether or not to pull up book 3 in the Sullivan Sisters series (I am 30,000 words in) and start writing, or just sleep for a few hours and start fresh in the morning. Since it was so late and I had been writing all day— except for the hour I came downstairs to cook baked chicken and eat with James and Maddy— I opted for a little sleep. I like to listen to already-heard audiobooks on low while I sleep, so I pulled up a Jana DeLeon book, and settled in for the night.
This next part is how I remember it….
At three o’clock I sit bolt upright in bed because I heard James SCREAM my name in his “get-your-butt-down-the-stairs-NOW” Marine voice. I threw back the covers and stood up…and IMMEDIATELY smelled the smoke. Only it wasn’t like a bonfire smoke, it smelled more like to me when you leave pans in the oven or maybe there’s still residual from the chemicals when you clean the oven. It just smelled harsh. I ran down the stairs and he yelled for me to call 911, the furnace in the basement was on fire. Now, I make it sound like James is being harsh (I’ve always said he’s good under pressure) because the next part gets crazy. So I ran as fast as I can back UP the stairs because I left my phone up there. Not very smart, but I was panicked. I grab my phone and start to hit 911…only I get to the 9 and I’m at the top of the stairs and I start to REALLY listen to James. As he’s yelling for Maddy (my step-daughter who has a bedroom on the other side of the house), his voice has changed. He’s more panicked. He’s now shouting, “Oh my God, Oh my God!” And at that moment at the top of the stairs, listening to his voice, I thought he was yelling that because something had happened to Maddy. Like he couldn’t rouse her because of smoke or something. I instantly dropped…my knees buckled and I slid down the stairs. The whole time I’m sliding I’m thinking, “What are we going to do if something has happened to Maddy? James will die!” I stand up when I near the bottom of the first landing (I’d regained my footing) and I turn to go down the last set of steps. I take a deep breath and the pain from that breath was excruciating! It hurt my whole body. I’m vaguely aware of the fire alarm in my left ear, and I’m vaguely aware of Maddy standing by the front door. Luckily the stairs off the library are only like eight feet or so from the front door. We all run outside, James carrying Brownie our dog, and I’m finally dialing 911. That was at 3:04.
Now, this next part is honestly a blur, because it’s how I THINK it happened, but I’ve spoken with my neighbor and even she’s not sure exactly what SHE did, and James has a little bit different idea of what happened…
I remember hearing James yelling from inside the house he didn’t know where the fire extinguisher was. I remember SCREAMING my neighbor’s name (she’s honestly usually awake at odd times, too) and I ran to her house yelling for a fire extinguisher. James couldn’t find the one we usually kept under the sink. I thought she handed me one…she thinks she carried two over…I honestly have no idea! I was almost positive I cradled a fire extinguisher in my arms. But I don’t know how that fits in the timeline of the fire department arriving in that three minute span (they arrived at 3:07 according to the fire chief) because the next thing I remember, the firemen are at my house. I remember seeing James running around the back of the house and yelling. He later told me that he was trying to get the firemen down to the basement— you have to go outside to get to our basement because it’s like a half basement with a crawlspace. The neighbor on the other side of me later confessed to hearing me screaming because she, too, had been up — we’re obviously a neighborhood of insomniacs. She said she felt so helpless listening to me screaming, but she has two kids under the age of three and her husband is deployed. There was nothing she could do but watch from the window.
I remember calling my mom on my cell phone and crying because I was standing on my lawn, looking inside my big 120-year-old picture window with original beveled glass at the top, and even though it’s pitch black outside, I’m aware of flames coming out of the floor eating my library. James believes that was just my mind playing tricks on me because he’s pretty sure by that time the “flash” fire had already occurred and the windows had all been broken out and the flames were residuals from the register which is how the fire traveled. Next thing I’m really aware of, I see Mr. Harrison (he teaches kindergarten and is a volunteer fireman) coming toward me asking me if I was okay.
And then came the crazy part…lol. Now, you might think I’m a bit naïve especially since I write murder mysteries, but this next part is true. So I’m not even aware really of what time it is, I might guess around 9 Sunday morning. The sun is up and the firemen are mostly gone. James’s friend, David, has come down to help James prep the house so nothing can get inside. Dave drives James and me to the police station so we can give a statement to the fire marshal. Naïve Jenna still doesn’t really understand what that means! And I will confess once it was done, I was MAD at James for not preparing me better! James and Dave never said a word to me on the way to the police station about what I should expect.
The fire marshal takes me back first since the house is in my name. We are sitting there and I’m giving him my information, still numb at the fact that the house has burned. He gets to the part about how much I owe on the house and if I’m late on payments. Naïve Jenna is still all clueless going, “Oh, no. I’ve never missed a payment.” Then he asks me about James and if it’s normal for us to be up around that time. And I think that’s the first time the bells start going DING DING DING! He asks me a few more “pointed/fishing” questions. By now I KNOW the look I’m giving him has to be one of pure insanity because he then quickly assures me that the fire did indeed start in the basement furnace. But before that declaration, he’d been fishing for “nefarious” information!!! I was shocked! Yet I shouldn’t be…I write about this stuff every day! LOL. But until you experience it firsthand, BELIEVE me, you aren’t actually PREPARED for it!
That moment changed my demeanor and behavior for the next two days. I came out of that room shocked and even more upset. The fire marshal took James back and I sat there in the police station and confessed to Dave what the fire marshal had ask me. Dave assured me that was normal procedure. It was part of his job and he had to ask me those things. I thought the fire marshal’s job SUCKED if that’s the questions he has to ask people immediately after a tragedy. James comes out a few minutes later and I tell him about it in the truck. James assures me it’s normal. He says, “Jenna, a lot of people are BEEEEEPS. It’s because of those people that the fire marshal has to ask you those questions. It doesn’t mean anything as far as you are concerned. It doesn’t mean he thinks you are automatically a bad person.” But he was wrong. Those questions totally broke my heart!
I’m not mentally prepared for that kind of overload. I’m evidently the only person appalled and hurt at the line of questioning. Looking back, I now know what I did was more of a transference of my emotions from one thing to another, but I couldn’t eat or sleep for two days after that whole experience…that someone would think that I would hurt my beloved old house with my family and all our worldly possessions (MY BOOKS) inside. It made me sick. I focused on that heartache for two days…which made it easier for me not to have to deal with the physical death of the house. I took one little thing and made it huge so I could put all my energy there.
But that was two weeks ago. The insurance company sent out two different fire experts to come look at the house because what happened was so unusual. It seems our “fail safe” switch failed to work for us. LOL! Go figure! So we are now moving forward slowly. My mother has flown back to help me do an inventory of the whole house, and we are slowly but surely picking our lives back up off the burned floor. We definitely couldn’t have done it without the help of family, friends, and strangers! People we know, people we don’t know…so many have come forward to help James, Maddy, and me put our lives back together. And that’s been so emotionally overwhelming and appreciated.
***UPDATE SEPT 2018: Okay, so I obviously wrote that in March. I’d say that my viewpoint is still the same. I can’t read it without crying. The emotion of that night and the days that followed were so raw.