Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An Incident One Evening

I had a very postmodern experience this evening as I was walking home from the train station.

I'd stopped by my usual corner grocery store and upon exiting took a different way home. As I was walking down this dark, primarily residential block, I heard a commotion and saw a crowd of silhouettes gathered at the intersection at the bottom of the hill. I assumed it was just a bunch of kids fooling around. As I neared the intersection, however, I saw some people running toward the crowd as a fire truck wailed by me.

When I reached the end of the block, I saw it -- a fire in the top floor of a walk-up. The window had shattered or been shattered. Flames were pouring out, shooting several feet into the air. The word conflagration came to mind.

I often hear fire trucks go by. I don't know if this is typical for a New York neighborhood, but I clearly recall in the past year two incidents on my block alone. Once I saw only smoke coming from a building, no fire visible, though a firefighter climbed from his truck to the roof. The other time, I was sitting in bed late one night when I heard a loud explosion. I figured that a gas line or some utility under the street had burst. I couldn't see that much from my window, but the street seemed to be on fire. The following day, I noticed that fresh asphalt had been laid near that spot.

This was different, however. As I watched the proceedings, I realized that I'd never seen a house on fire in real life. I'd seen it in movies and on the news but never in person. Although only one room of this apartment seemed to be on fire, I couldn't believe the enormous energy behind the flames. How bright it was.

A firefighter raised the ladder on his truck and drove it toward one of the apartment's other windows. Suddenly, the pane of glass exploded. It wasn't like the sound made when a small object flies through a window. This was a high, crackly explosion with a low oomph behind it.

Another firefighter who'd made it into the apartment broke some of the other windows. Some errant sprays of water started coming out of the room in which the fire was concentrated. The flames diminished.

Later, a firefighter took a chainsaw to the stone molding at the top of the building, cutting into it with a shriek. No more flames seemed to be coming from the roof, but the roof was still on fire. The firefighters aimed water at it. Water spurted out from the gaps and gushed down the side of the building.

As planes passed overhead, I wondered if the passengers on board could see the fire and the red and yellow lights, not nearly as bright as the glow of the fire, of two police cars, two ambulances, three or four fire trucks and a fire department SUV.

As the fire was beaten, the crowd dissipated. At the fire's peak, quite a number of people had converged on the spot -- people coming home from work or the grocery store, delivery workers on bikes, families, people out walking their dogs, people out running. Car traffic slowed to avoid hitting gawkers standing in the street. Every time I lifted my coffee cup to take a sip, I felt as if I was at a movie, enjoying the show.

It was rather heartbreaking, actually. There was something about the ferocity of the fire, eating up the room and crawling up the walls from what I could see of it. I wondered how I'd feel if I came home and saw my place on fire, wondered what I'd be in anguish over losing. Photos? Old letters?

Fortunately, I don't think anyone was hurt. I kept expecting a firefighter to descend the ladder with an unconscious person slung over his shoulder, but the rest of the apartment had been dark. Either no one had been home or the apartment had been vacant.

On an entirely different note, I guess library cops do exist.


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