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Posted at 1:47 PM ET, 12/24/2010

Something found in the ashes

By Joe Flood, Washington

Late one afternoon in November, my apartment building caught fire. A friend of mine called me with the news.

At the time, I was a few blocks away, having a drink. I was about to go to an election night party. I didn’t believe my friend, and the District seems to send out fire engines for everything. I had seen fire trucks in my Northwest neighborhood before, responding to false alarms and minor accidents.

I was stunned when I returned home. Ladder trucks surrounded the building. It had been a three-alarm fire. There was a black hole on the ninth floor, where an unattended candle had touched off the fire. TV crews were doing reports. News of the dramatic downtown conflagration was on every channel.

My neighbors were sheltering in the lobby of the building next door — all the people I saw on a daily basis but rarely talked to. We compared notes and speculated. None of us would get back home that night. A neighborhood hotel put us all up.

Things were worse in the morning. There’s a perverse thrill you get with disaster, and it quickly ends when the sun comes up. I loitered behind police tape with other residents, all of us concerned about the state of our homes. Two of the units on the ninth floor were destroyed, just windowless shells looking out at the dawn. The rest of the floor had been condemned, damaged by smoke and fire.

Eventually, we were allowed inside, to a building reeking of ashes, the carpets still damp.

I opened the door on my seventh-floor apartment to see it exactly as I had left it the day before. Relief filled me.

Not everyone was so lucky. Units down the hallway from me were damaged by the water used to put out the fire. It had poured down from the ninth floor and into their apartments. I heard one of my neighbors crying in the hall.

A fire is something most people don’t want to think about. I was fortunate to have renter’s insurance, just in case the worst happened, but so much of what matters, such as personal photos, can never be replaced.

Also, fire doesn’t care if you’re good or conscientious. One person and a moment of carelessness was all it took to render a dozen people homeless.

I realized that I had no real emergency plan. Upon seeing the disaster that night, my response was to go to the neighborhood hotel. All I had were the clothes on my back.

I could’ve stayed with friends except for one major problem — the battery in my cellphone had died. My last Twitter update was about my building being on fire. Friends and family got worried when they didn’t hear anything else from me. Another lesson learned — keep the phone charged.

Social media are no substitute for real people. I was fortunate that a friend in the neighborhood alerted me to the fire. Later, I commiserated and shared information with my neighbors, people with whom I had only shared small-talk in the elevator. Friends offered me a place to stay. People called to check in on me.

I was fortunate. The fire was just a minor inconvenience for me. Others’ lives were overturned. I come away from the experience with one essential truth — all the stuff you own, the things that seem to define you, can disappear in a moment. What matters most are the relationships you have with other people, whether they be friends, family or neighbors.

By Joe Flood, Washington  | December 24, 2010; 1:47 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic  
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Posted by: joeflood | December 27, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

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