At 12:42pm yesterday an explosion went off inside my condo building 20 feet from where I was working.
The following is as accurate of a record as I could make it. I pulled the exact times of doors opening and closing from my security system’s log. Glass break detectors record the precise moment of explosion. I tried to remember the smallest details and put them to paper shortly afterwards. I’ve rehearsed the events in my mind dozens of times.
What happens inside the stairwell immediately before the blast is what I’ve pieced together from the evidence left behind and all the professionals I spoke with. It’s what I think happened. But I can’t say for sure.
It’s around 9am. Valentine’s Day. A carpet installer arrives at my building to continue work on replacing the worn carpet in the main stairwell. I had given him a set of keys to the building at his request, so he’s been managing the project on his own schedule. I made sure to leave the back gate open when I left that morning so he can park his van in our parking lot.
I’m currently in my fourth beginner’s yoga class. I make my first attempt at a Crow. I fall on my mat. Maybe next time I won’t fall quite so badly. I get in the sauna. I get dressed. I drive home.
It’s 10:18am. I see the carpet installer’s van in the lot when I come in the back entryway.
I’m feeling extremely relaxed. More than I’ve been for days. And a bit sociable. That’s strange. I decide to take advantage of it and commit to talk to someone shortly. I haven’t said hi to the installer this morning. I’ll do that. I make some tea first.
It’s 10:44am. I open my front door on the first level. I see the installer about to go downstairs. I say hello in the main entryway. We make smalltalk. I hate smalltalk. But slightly less today. Maybe it’s a side effect of yoga.
I get a glimpse at what he has done so far from the door of my unit. I am impressed with the quality of the work. I tell him so. It’s not something I know how to do. It looks backbreaking. But it looks like what I imagine a carpet installation would. I don’t notice the ominous 5 gallon black drum in the basement with fire hazard warnings painted in red on it, filled to the brim with dangerous chemicals. He must have brought it in from his van earlier.
He tells me he is going to leave early because it is Valentine’s Day. I say that sounds like an excellent idea. We’re not in a rush. It’s just carpet. The exchange lasts maybe 2 minutes. I wish him a good day and close my front door.
As he continues his work downstairs, fumes from the adhesive used to glue the carpet to the cement invisibly fills the stairwell of the building. They gather all morning. The installer is in the basement and continues working; everyone else is at work. I’m in my basement working and notice nothing unusual. All the external doors to the stairwell are closed tight as a drum. It’s fairly warm outside for the middle of February. It’s going to get over 50 degrees today. But the installer continues his work and does not open any doors for ventilation.
It’s 12:41pm. Some of the old basement carpet being removed is stubborn. It isn’t pulling up. The old glue needs to be heated to peel it from the floor. The installer is a professional. He’s been doing carpet for nearly 30 years. This is how it is done.
The installer gets out his heat gun. Flips the switch. Click.
The fumes ignite. The space is enclosed. Expanding gases with nowhere to go. The physics of a pipe bomb. Doors on every floor blow out of their frames to relieve the pressure. The entire main entrance groans and heaves itself towards the street. A locked metal door is blown open with enough force to be fully impaled by a rubber doorstop. The ceiling beams on the top floor shatter like toothpicks as the concussive wave rushes toward the roof. Large pieces of the ceiling tumble down the stairwell.
The ceiling of the stairwell. The two-by-fours are all snapped in two.
A fire starts in the basement. The heat gun, still running, falls to the carpet.
The installer immediately escapes the building in a state of shock. He has third-degree burns on 20 percent of his body. Dead skin is dangling from his wrists like macabre bracelets. His clothes have the appearance of burned rags falling from his body. He leaves behind a pile of ash in the spot he is standing outside.
He is whisked away in an ambulance to the closest hospital.
I learned the importance of fire safety from my part time job in high school at a manufacturing plant in Indiana. My cubicle was adjacent to the safety director. We made things out of metal. There was aluminum and iron dust everywhere. If accidentally mixed, the two primary ingredients in a compound called thermite. Once thermite ignites almost nothing on earth can extinguish its flame save the passage of time, the same ending we desire for the fire inside ourselves.
I make a regular habit of practicing fire safety with Jess. I want to know that she has the skills necessary to respond to a fire if we ever had one. I assumed that I already did.
What we do is simple. We have a practice to be ready for a fire. Periodically I ask the following questions.
What do you do if there is a fire?
Grab a fire extinguisher
Where are the fire extinguishers?
Under the sink and next to the furnace
How do you use a fire extinguisher?
Pull the pin. Point at base of fire. Squeeze.
It feels childish every time we do it. Jess humors this and a thousand stranger things that I do. I love my wife.
It’s 12:41pm. I’m in my office working. It’s in the lowest level of the building. Below ground. It’s just like the office in the second basement of the math building that was my refuge during grad school. Quiet. Cavelike. Serene. It’s the reason we bought our unit. My hard requirement was a basement office. I have trouble focusing if I’m not utterly alone and in a quiet enclosed space.
I’ve heard hammering and other loud noises all morning. I’m not getting a lot of work done. That’s fine. He’ll be done tomorrow at the latest even if he leaves early for his Valentine’s Day plans. It will be quiet again soon. I finish scanning a document and send it as an email attachment. I admire my document scanner for a full 5 seconds while I gently close the lid. I put the scanned papers neatly on my desk.
The whole building shakes. I can feel it rattle through my body. My office is 20 feet from where the installer is working.
I’ve heard explosions in full Dolby surround sound at the movies. I’ve fired a large caliber rifle without hearing protection. I’ve lit off M-80s on the fourth when I was a kid. But nothing like this. Localized earthquake is my best description right now. But I’ve never experienced an earthquake either. I don’t know what earthquakes sound like. Do they make any noise on their own? Or is it just their destruction that makes a sound?
I initially think that something huge in the stairwell has collapsed. Scaffolding? I didn’t see any earlier, but maybe it was that falling down and down and down the stairs and hitting all the walls while it goes. I don’t spend any time analyzing how dumb it is for me to think that a carpet installer would need scaffolding.
I run to investigate and see if the installer is hurt. The door next to my office opens into the main stairwell in the basement. I throw it open.
The floor is on fire. A pan full of flammable adhesive is in full blaze. Flaming liquid adhesive has splashed around the bottom of the stairwell. Smoke alarms start blaring. I inhale smoke and emit a deep cough that almost causes me to gag. I don’t see the installer anywhere.
Smoke. Flames. Fire. Danger. Fear.
An ancient switch flips deep inside my brain. My IQ drops 100 points. If you were to ask me my sex, birthday, or name right now I wouldn’t know. I am a panicked animal fearing death and I have no name. I freeze.
What do you do if there is a fire? Grab a fire extinguisher
Where are the fire extinguishers? Under the sink and next to the furnace
I grab the fire extinguisher next to the furnace. I stare at this strange device in my hands. It is the most complicated piece of machinery I have ever held. What do I do? Do I throw it at the fire? The primal part of my brain tries and fails to understand: How do you use a fire extinguisher?
Pull the pin. Point at base of fire. Squeeze.
The basement floor of the stairwell. No longer on fire and given a precautionary bath by the CFD.
I empty the fire extinguisher into the flames. They lessen but do not go out. They quickly start growing again. I notice a large black drum emblazoned with the red icon of a flame and the bold proclamation of FLAMMABLE LIQUID.
The drum’s lid is engulfed in flames. I can see the plastic spout melting into the drum while it burns. My extinguisher is empty. ohshitohshitohshit. My only thought is that the drum is going to explode once the spout gives and I don’t have a way to put it out. Like one of those round black cartoon bombs with a lit fuse I saw on the TV as a kid. Time slows down as adrenaline courses through my body, a primal response to avoid death and the destruction of my home. My mind freezes. I’m helpless again.
This looked more dangerous when it was in the basement. In the smoke. And on fire.
What do you do if there is a fire? Grab a fire extinguisher
Where are the fire extinguishers? Under the sink and next to the furnace
I have the sink fire extinguisher in my hands and pointed at the flaming drum in under 30 seconds. I pull the pin. I point it at the base of the fire. I squeeze.
This time the fire goes out before the extinguisher does. I remember to breathe. I cough as I inhale more acrid smoke.
Through the haze I see the glowing end of the heat gun attempting to burn a larger hole in the already burned carpet. I flick the switch and turn it off. Click.
It’s 12:44pm. I run up the undamaged stairs inside my unit and out the front door to find the installer. He is outside. I’m grateful he can still walk. He appears to be able to hear my voice and is responding to instructions.
People are gathering in front of the building and watching. Someone has already called 911. I hear sirens. Help is coming.
I keep him from reentering the building twice. He must stay out of the building. I’m not sure why, but that feels like something a professional would make him do.
My brain flickers a little as reason begins to reboot itself. I wonder how he isn’t deaf. The explosion should have ruptured both of his eardrums. Maybe he is just reading my lips and gestures. He wants his phone. He tells me it is in his coat. A coat he can no longer wear with the burns on his arms. I recover his phone from the stairwell so he can call his family from the hospital. I inhale more smoke in the process.
I make sure he gets in the ambulance.
The more human parts of my brain come back online. Self-awareness. I realize I’m barefoot. I see that my feet are covered in a fine white powder. I feel emotions again.
I let an endless parade of firefighters and police officers in and out of the building. They ventilate. Secure. Analyze. Question. The bomb and arson squad arrives. Inspections are done. The one-way street in front of my building is littered with police cars and fire engines. Traffic is at a standstill. I answer questions for hours. Two officers stand guard in front of the building until all the investigations are complete. It’s officially a police scene. Evidence must be secured. They won’t leave until nearly 5pm.
I have a list I keep updated that has the contact information for everyone in the building. A neighbor arrives back home with his dog and I’m getting him up to speed. We start calling everybody.
I start with Jess. No answer. I leave her a voicemail to call me soon but don’t describe what has occurred. I am careful to hide any distress in my voice. I don’t want her to worry unnecessarily. There’s nothing she can do from the hospital. She needs to focus on her work.
I calmly repeat the same things over and over and over in an upbeat voice. The most positive attitude I can muster. I force myself to smile while I’m talking. Assure them their home will be fine. Things will be okay. It could have been worse. The damage can be repaired. The installer is being treated. Everyone rushes home to help. I’m so glad they are here. I have great neighbors.
I finally remember to put on shoes. There are still chalky impressions of bare feet throughout my home as I write this.
Every unit is inspected. No one else besides the installer is injured. Two cats were startled but seem to be doing well. A police officer keeps watch on their gaping door to ensure they don’t escape before their owner returns. Xena is off playing at daycare and has no idea what is going on at home.
I finally look at the damage to the stairwell myself. I’ve been standing outside answering questions for what feels like hours. It looks like a bomb went off. But the fire did not spread and burn the building to the ground. I feel a wave of gratitude wash over me. I see the ash-covered drum of flammable adhesive in the basement. Its plastic spout nearly melted through and falling inside the drum now. An innie that used to be an outie. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t put out the fire before it got inside the drum. If I hadn’t been home. If I hesitated for a few more seconds.
A firefighter tells me I was brave. She says I should tell the fire chief how I put out the fire. I do. He reeks of competence and has the cocky swagger of someone who has faced death repeatedly and always walked towards it instead of away. I like him. He tells me how good I was for choosing the correct fire extinguisher type to put out an adhesive fire. The one most people don’t buy because they cost a bit more.
I make a noise that sounds of agreement. I want to feel like I was brave and smart. That I was in full control of my mental abilities and knew exactly which fire extinguisher to grab first.
I didn’t. I grabbed the wrong extinguisher first. The closest one to the fire. The one by the furnace. It wasn’t capable of putting out an adhesive fire. The one under the sink could. I didn’t know they were different types. They looked similar. They were the same brand. And we got them both nearly 7 years ago when Jess and I moved into our first home together. The home that I’m standing outside of right now in my bare white powder covered feet. The home that almost burned down.
I don’t recognize the first extinguisher was ineffective until the chief is telling me how good I was for using the correct one. I comprehend why the fire came back so quickly the first time. Stupid stupid stupid. I accept the praise but cringe inwardly.
I desperately want to feel my actions were rooted in some deeper sense of what it means to be human.
To save lives. To save people’s homes. Their pets. The things they love.
They weren’t. I wasn’t brave. No higher purpose was going through my mind as I stared at the fire and smoke. Only a primal fear I couldn’t control and my own voice repeating in the back of my brain: What do you do if there is a fire? Nothing else.
It’s morning, the day after. I am walking Xena in the park. I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep last night. I am thinking a lot about what it means to be brave. And to try and figure out what I was yesterday.
I throw Xena’s ball as far as I can. She launches after it, four paws leaving the ground to defy gravity for a brief moment. Hind paws rising parallel to her ears as her back rounds to force the stale air from her lungs. A cannonball that consumes meat and transforms it into locomotion. She retrieves it perfectly and gently nudges it into the center of my palm. I have the songs I love playing in my earbuds on shuffle. The lyrics are fading in and out today. She walks by my side proud and happy and unconcerned of past or future. The orange and blue rubber ball a trophy between her teeth.
We return home. Downstairs. Into my office. My refuge. Close the door. There is no noise in the stairwell today. It is silent. I am alone. I still can’t focus. I decide to put my memories and thoughts into words. I start writing.
I don’t think I was brave. What I had was readiness. Being prepared. Even with the human parts of my brain shut down in fear, I had a practice to fall back on that didn’t require rational thought. I didn’t have to know my own name but I could remember where the extinguishers were located. I didn’t need to be able to read to learn how to use the extinguisher. Pull the pin. Point at base of fire. Squeeze.
I think that most of us fall back on practice in moments of extreme danger or stress. Even the professionals. They just practice much more dangerous things than how to use a fire extinguisher. And they do it a lot more than twice a year. And they do it correctly every time.
The first ingredient of bravery is deliberate practice with the intention to alleviate danger.
Is that all there is to bravery then? Is it only correctly applied practice in the face of fear?
I don’t think so. I’m not brave. The fire fighters in full gear stomping into my building not knowing what they would find inside were brave. Soldiers going into battle not knowing if they will survive are brave. Police officers. EMTs. The list is long. It doesn’t include me.
These men and women have my highest respect. They know that the fear will come. They also know that they have the practice to respond appropriately when facing it.
Bravery is not simply responding correctly in the face of fear. Bravery is also the conscious decision to selflessly embrace the coming fear with the certainty that you are ready for it.
That is the difference between being ready and being brave. Both require practice. Being brave requires walking into the fear instead of having it forced upon you.
What if you chose to walk into the source of danger without practice to protect you? This is the opposite of brave. It is foolish. Only a fool would put their own lives and possibly those of others at risk by walking into danger unprepared.
What if a fire starts in your kitchen? It leaps from the stove to the drapes which burst into flame. It is small and manageable but nonetheless terrifying. You either don’t have an extinguisher or in your panic forget to use one.
Maybe in an attempt to save some money you bought the wrong model that can handle a stovetop fire but not a textile one. The specifics don’t matter. The fire is still burning. You run out of your building. Call the fire department. They arrive. But what was a small kitchen fire is now a blaze. Your entire building complex is burning. Someone dies.
I think in this scenario you are also foolish. You didn’t start a fire intentionally. But you could have stopped that fire when it was small. It would have only taken you a few minutes of preparation. And maybe a fairly inconsequential purchase. You could have been prepared. You could have saved a life. You didn’t. You weren’t ready.
We hear it so much that it has become a cliche we ignore: fire safety is everyone’s job. But it’s true. The basics are extremely simple. Something every adult should know how to do.
I’m confident what I did wasn’t foolish. I had the practice of using a fire extinguisher. To respond correctly in the face of fear. To escape if left no other choice. But I didn’t run into a burning building. I was already in one.
One of my fire extinguishers wasn’t the right one. But at least I had another that did work. A mistake I’ll never make again.
I was ready. Hopefully not foolish. But not brave either. I didn’t run into my neighbor’s house to put out a fire. I opened the door and faced a fire poised to consume my home. I had the source of fear forced upon me. I didn’t make that choice. But I could act.
I’m not brave. But I was ready. I’m still proud of that.
A huge thank you to the CPD, CFD, and every one of the countless government employees that I met yesterday. I wasn’t in a state to remember your names. But if you are reading this, I am incredibly grateful to live in a city with such incredible first responders. I still can’t believe how quick and overwhelming the response was. And how thorough everyone was after the fact.
I am so grateful for all the life-saving professionals whose careers can only exist because of taxes. Taxes are the cost of our entry ticket into civilization. It’s the best show in history and we can afford the price of admission. I’ll try to complain less about paying them now.
I’m still waiting on the status of the installer. The last update I heard was that he was transferred to a burn unit to be treated. I got sad at the thought of him missing his Valentine’s Day plans and having to spend it in the hospital.
36 hour update
I spoke with the installer’s relatives last night when they came to claim his tools, his van, his coat, and the big black drum that almost destroyed our building. I’m not sure why they wanted the drum, but I’m happy it’s gone.
It’s worse than I thought. He had to be transferred to a major academic medical center in the city to treat his burns. He was put in a medical coma because of the pain. He is going to need skin grafts. He is going to pull through. But he won’t be woken up until tomorrow at the earliest.
What you should do right now
- Have at least one fire extinguisher on every level of your home. If you have a garage or workroom they should have their own. If you live in a mansion, use more. You can clearly afford them.
- Make sure you have at least two fire extinguishers, even if you only have a single level home. It is a terrible feeling to be staring at a growing fire with an empty fire extinguisher in hand and no backup.
- If you are a renter you don’t get a pass. Buy your own extinguisher if your unit doesn’t have the correct type. Take it with you when you leave. You cannot push the burden of your safety into the hands of your landlord. Take charge.
- If you are a landlord, please provide adequate safety equipment in your rentals. This includes high quality fire extinguishers. This is not an area to be cheap.
- If you live in a large apartment building you likely have common fire extinguishers in the halls. These are not an excuse to not have your own in your unit. But you should practice remembering where they are located. If they are visible, make sure they look ready to use. Ask your office what their maintenance policy is. When did they check them last?
- Every extinguisher you own should be ABC rated with at least 5lbs of powder inside. Not the tiny models people normally buy that can only handle one type of fire. Your fire extinguisher needs to handle the unexpected, just like you. Your brain will not be able to determine the correct model to use when a fire is happening. If you already have an extinguisher, make sure it is ABC and has at least 5lbs of powder in it.
- Ensure all extinguishers are in ready to use condition and visible. They must never have been used if they are disposable. If they are rechargeable and used they must be fully recharged by a professional. The pin must be in place and not broken. The gauge must be green. The information on the side should indicate it is ABC. Go check them now.
- Keep one extinguisher in your kitchen. That is where a fire is most likely to occur. If you keep it under the sink ensure it is not behind anything. It should be visible and ready to grab.
- Dispose of any expired, used, or non-ABC fire extinguishers. You don’t want to accidentally pick the wrong one when the fear sets in. A fire is not a time you can make rational decisions. Make them now while your head is clear. Do not hoard bad safety equipment. Do not pass it off on friends or family. In an emergency someone may try to use it. Don’t put their lives at risk.
- Pick two dates every year. Put them on your calendar in red ink. Make a commitment to spend 5 minutes those days reviewing your fire safety procedures. Use the questions I list below for guidance.
I’ve done extensive research into the best home fire extinguisher after my experience. This is the model I bought to protect my home. It meets my minimum recommendations of being a type ABC extinguisher with 5 pounds of powder inside. At $50 each it’s the best investment in my family’s safety I’m ever going to make.
First Alert PRO5 Heavy Duty Plus Fire Extinguisher
Note – I wouldn’t recommend buying a fire extinguisher online if you have another option. You don’t want it to be dropped during shipment and go off in a UPS van. Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, Target, and Walmart usually carry this model.
But if the hassle of going to a store is going to make you forget to get one, just buy it online now. Be ready.
Questions to ask everyone in your home twice a year
- What do you do if there is a fire?
- Where are the fire extinguishers?
- How do you use a fire extinguisher?
- What is your evacuation route?
- Can you do it blindfolded?
For children, the answer to the first question is always escape the fire.
If you have children in your home, practice your evacuation route with them twice a year. Make it a game. Have them do it with a blindfold using their fingers to guide them. Teach them about feeling the temperature of doors before opening them up. Change the starting point each time if you can. Practice it with them.
When in doubt, always exit the building. If you have any reason to believe that you can’t put a fire out without putting yourself at risk, leave it to the fire department. Your life is worth more than some property damage. My basement has multiple escape routes and I could have easily exited the situation at any time. I can do it with my eyes closed. I’ve practiced. I’m ready.
Please share my experience with the people you care about. Help them be ready.