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Wakeup call

16 March 2012

So, the other night we had a house fire. No, wait. That didn’t come out right; that made it sound like some kind of party, which it most definitely was not. In fact, it was one of the most scary experiences I’ve had. Here’s what happened:

Waking up

It all started at 2 am Wednesday morning. I woke up to Baby girl screaming frantically in her room across the hall. Scrambling out of bed, I thought she must have hurt herself somehow, but as I got into the hallway I was hit by a wall of heat. I must admit that my first thought was: “Bloody hell, what’s wrong with the central heating? It’s boiling in here!” but then I drew my first breath of hot toxic smoke and the penny dropped. “Oh my god!” I shouted to Fiancée. “Fire! There’s a fire! Wake up!” The hallway was pitch black with no lights working, and Baby girl’s screams got even more panicky as a loud bang was suddenly heard from her room. Opening her door (Why was the door shut? It’s never shut; we always keep it open so we can hear the baby.), the heat increased to scalding hot oven levels. It seemed incredible that anyone could still be alive in there.

Abandoned cot

Now, I don’t recall the next part all too clearly, but I remember seeing flames in the corner of the room and thinking to myself “Well, THAT needs to be put out”, quickly discovering I couldn’t breath and then I’m suddenly running downstairs with Baby girl in my arms, placing her on a big bean bag in the ground floor sitting room (aka the office), where she sat perfectly still, looking shocked and confused. I also recall the fire alarm going off somewhat superfluously, almost politely, as if to remind us that there might be some kind of fire on the premises. Oh, and all the time I seem to have screamed “Fire! There’s a fire! Get out NOW!”

Getting out

Hearing nothing from Fiancée, I rushed up the stairs again, slammed the door shut to baby’s room to contain the fire and got back into our bedroom. There I found Fiancée hanging out the bedroom window gasping for air, as the bedroom was now completely filled with hot black smoke. I shouted to her that we needed to get out, but she wouldn’t budge, her body frantically trying to get oxygen. I managed to get my head out a window as well to get a couple of breaths of fresh air and after a few seconds we had regained enough focus to call the fire brigade on my mobile and rush down the stairs. We even managed to get the dog out with us (who, by the way, wouldn’t leave my fiancée’s side for the whole time).

Downstairs it was almost smoke free, and as Fiancée picked up Baby girl, I rummaged around my jacket for a torch I knew I had there. (Still don’t know why I thought I needed a torch at that point.) As we got out of the house, the neighbour came rushing out her house, looking panicked and asking if we were all ok. I assured her we were all fine, but by now my face was pitch black from all the smoke and she didn’t look too convinced. It later came to light she and at least two more neighbours had phoned the Emergency services as well, and reported a family trapped inside a burning house. This probably explains why, as soon as I got everyone into the car and reversing it away from the house, the first police car came around the corner. Within seconds three or four more police cars arrived and the place suddenly seemed crowded with police officers.

Rescue

One of the police asked us if anyone was still in the house and I tried to reassure him that we were all in the car, but again without much success. Not until I said “Everyone is out and in the car, including the dog.” did he believe me.

The place the telly used to be

By now a fire truck had arrived, and I watched with detached curiosity as they quickly and efficiently went to work with rolling out hoses and strapping on breathing apparatuses. As they entered the front door, that same police man who quizzed me before guided me towards our car, asking if anyone was hurt. “No, were all fine” I said, feeling somewhat dazed and a little annoyed with not being allowed to see the fire being put out.

“We better have you checked over anyway” he replied, gesturing for the newly arrived medics to come over and we were quickly led into the ambulance, where Fiancée was put on a stretcher with Baby girl and I sat down next to them.

I didn’t feel scared or in shock, just a little speeded (although I probably was a sight with wild starey eyes in my sooty black face). As the ambulance reversed back out onto the main road, the medic checked our oxygen levels to make sure we hadn’t suffered any immediate smoke inhalation injuries.

All in all, the whole chain of events from waking up to being on our way to the hospital can’t have taken more than 7 or 8 minutes, and I believe we probably were out of the house in two minutes or less.

Aftermath

At the Accidents & Emergency ward, we were given oxygen level checks again, water to drink and blankets to wrap around us (I was still strutting about in my underwear). With everyone safe and unharmed, we slowly started to calm down. We phoned our families in Scandinavia (giving them quite the scare, I’m sure), and I tweeted / status updated to let my online community know what was going on (and almost immediately got worried responses from the ones still up and about – thank you, guys!).

As we didn’t have any family on the island, the British Red Cross was called in to take care of us until we could sort out temporary accommodation. I must say, the response both from the emergency services, the hospital and the Red Cross was top-notch! Everyone was very friendly and supportive and made us feel that we could deal with this difficult situation step by step (the Red Cross people even offered to babysit Baby girl for us!). Also, the support we’ve received from the community has been absolutely overwhelming – each day there’s been more bags with toys and clothes for Baby girl waiting outside our abandoned house. We’ve even been lent a flat to use and we’ve had help moving our stuff and babysitting Baby girl. Thank you all!

Beauty in chaos

Later that day, we met up with the Fire chief and he explained what they thought caused the fire. As it turned out, an extension lead seemed to have overheated, melted and set fire to the television set (that bang I heard during the fire was the screen exploding from the heat). I’m still not sure why the extension lead should have caught fire, as we only had the telly, a Blu-Ray player, a Sky box and a VCR plugged in. Oh, and a hard disk and a Skype phone, but both of those had separate power bricks. Modern gadgets like flat screen tellies and Blu-Ray players don’t draw much power on stand-by, so it’s still a bit of a mystery why it overheated.

Lessons and warnings

However the extension cord caught fire, I’m certain I’ll only ever buy and use the more expensive kind from now on; you know, with switches and fuses and stuff. I’ll also make sure to calculate the total load on any extension cord in use to make sure nothing could potentially overheat.

But even if prevention is essential, what really scared the living daylight out of me was how late the fire alarms set off. We had two radio-connected alarms, one on each floor, but it’s painfully clear that this just isn’t enough. Every home need a separate fire alarm IN EVERY ROOM, and they need to be connected so that one alarm set off all the others. That’s the only way you have a chance of getting even a few seconds margin to get out the building in time. We were apparently VERY close to not make it out alive at all – another 30-60 seconds and the smoke would have gotten to us. If Baby girl hadn’t screamed and woken me up, I would not be here to write these words today. It’s that simple.

So, please. PLEASE! Anyone reading this:

  • Make sure you have fire alarms in each and every room of your home. They need to be linked, or you won’t hear them through closed doors.
  • Make sure to check your extension cords for overload. Check the max load and don’t plug too many devices to the same wall socket.
  • Make sure you know how to get out, even if you’re confused, injured, blinded and suffocating from hot smoke. You will most probably only have a few precious seconds to get everyone out.

Ok, I realise this isn’t really an entertaining post but it is an important one. We were very lucky. Very lucky indeed. I know that I’m not going to chance it and count on being this lucky again. So: Fire alarms. In. Every. Room. Please.

P.S. Thank you all for your kind words and warming thoughts on Twitter and Facebook! It has made this whole ordeal more manageable somehow.

UPDATE: Fiancée informed me that her take on the chain of events was quite different. She was under the impression we were trapped upstairs with no means of getting out. This highlights the importance of fire drills – something I’ll be subjecting my family to on a regular basis from now on!

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 March 2012 21:52

    well, you know, not ‘like’ as such.

    i had no idea it was this bad. i am so glad you all got out. also, i really recognize that ‘detached curiosity’ thing. i felt something like that after a car crash.

    Like

    • 20 March 2012 21:58

      Thank you. It WAS scary, but only afterwards, when I started to think about what ALMOST happened.

      Like

      • 21 March 2012 10:14

        yes!

        that’s right. whether you were technically ‘in shock’ or not, there is certainly something reptilian in the fight or flight chemistry that lets us be calm or active during an emergency which bears no relation to how you feel afterwards. as well as feeling very emotional, the aftermath can be a time of great clarity.

        Like

        • 21 March 2012 13:36

          Yes, I certainly experienced a detachment and a sense of everything being unreal. I believe the brain ‘down-shifts’ to more primordial parts in order to handle the situation as quickly and efficiently as possible. It basically censors the conscious parts for a limited time.

          Afterwards, when the censorship is lifted, all the conscious thoughts and emotions come forward.

          And yes, I know one thing: I will fire drill Baby girl throughout her childhood to make sure she will know what to do if she ever happen to be in a fire again.

          Like

          • 21 March 2012 14:49

            interestingly, i think that we access that part of the brain during meditation as well, but instead of it being a crisis it’s ‘just sitting’. we observe phenomena as it arises and we ‘hold our seat’ as pema chodron would have it. time can be elastic when the present moment is fully apprehended.

            as well as having a measurable effect on the brain’s activities apparently the insula is significantly thicker in meditators. i don’t claim to know what this means, it’s just an aside.

            Like

  2. 20 March 2012 22:04

    In my younger days, I lived in two different apartment buildings that caught fire in the middle of the night. Both were caused by people who were drunk and passed out . One left a pot of water on a gas stove and the other fell asleep with a lit cigarette.
    It is quite a feeling that one experiences out of a dead sleep into a fight for survival.
    Thankfully, you kept your head and all survived.
    Very well done!

    Like

    • 20 March 2012 22:12

      Thank you! I’m glad you survived your fires as well. Fires are very scary, but most of my actions were automatic responses. I don’t really remembering rushing in to pick up Baby girl; I just suddenly had her in my arms running down the stairs.

      Like

  3. 21 March 2012 01:57

    Oh, Andreas. This is so much worse than I even imagined. 30-60 SECONDS? I hate how close this was. I’m so, so, SO glad you’re all alright. Don’t you EVER scare me like that again, mister! I MEAN IT!

    I still want to hug you until your whole chest creaks.

    Like

    • 21 March 2012 07:04

      I’ll try not to. I sure don’t ever want to experience anything like this ever again.

      And I’m so grateful that Baby girl woke up and managed to wake me up in turn; this whole thing could have ended differently in so many ways, none of them good.

      As it happens, we’ve gotten away almost completely unharmed. I got some (very minor) burns in my face that are all but healed already, and both Fiancée and Baby girl managed to avoid any kind of physical damage. (Even though Baby girl seem to be suffering from recurring nightmares.)

      But uninvited pictures of intensive care units and Baby girl with tubes up her nose, or coffins being collected at an airport keeps haunting me. I think it will be a while before I can let this go.

      Like

      • 21 March 2012 12:56

        I also want to hug Baby Girl and Fiancée. HUGS FOR ALL. Relieved hugs!

        Make sure, when Baby Girl is older, you tell her how when she was just a wee one, she saved her whole family’s life. She’ll love that story!

        This will probably stick with you for a bit. I don’t see how it can’t. I have trouble letting things go, too, obviously. The scary things hang on for a while.

        I’m so glad you had such an amazing support system there, by the way! Way to go, British Red Cross! Thank you for taking care of my faraway friend!

        Like

        • 21 March 2012 13:44

          I gladly welcome your hugs, as would Baby girl and Fiancée, I’m sure! And I will tell her the story (although not TOO often!).

          Main thing now is that any smell of smoke, in particular from burning rubbish, make me shudder. I hope I haven’t been spoilt from enjoying a nice log fire ever again.

          Like

  4. 21 March 2012 08:55

    Wow Andreas. This must have been terrifying! Fair do’s to you acting so calmly though! You sound like someone who good to have in a tricky situation!

    I’m so glad you’re okay and I LOVE it when humans are nice! When will the house be liveable again?

    Like

    • 21 March 2012 09:05

      It really was. I think I acted mostly on instinct though. And I completely forgot that we should have dropped to the floor to avoid the hot smoke – so stupid!

      Thanks! We’re very lucky to have escaped unharmed.

      They recon it will be 2-3 months before the house is habitable again, but since we were moving back to Finland anyway we won’t get back in before we go.

      Like

  5. 21 March 2012 13:56

    How long did you have to walk around in your underwear? How did you finally get pants? I always worry about that.

    I would like to comment longer, but I am on my way to the store to buy fire alarms and better extension cords. I am getting the best damn extension cords that store has to offer.

    Glad you and your family are safe. The world would be a poorer place without you in it.

    Like

    • 21 March 2012 14:05

      Only a few hours, luckily. We got to take showers at the Red Cross, and they kindly gave us some clothes to wear.

      I’m glad! Get the bestest ones they’ve got!

      Aw, thank you! You’re so sweet! We were very lucky, and we know it. Will do anything i can to not be in that situation again.

      Like

  6. 21 March 2012 16:44

    HOLY CRAP!
    I was wondering about the “moving” tweets from you, but I’ve missed a day or two recently, so I just assumed you were moving somewhere new!
    I’m really glad you’re all OK but that’s scary! It was scary enough when a former housemate accidentally started a kitchen fire, in the middle of the night, here. I can’t imagine how fragile it must make you feel, looking back on it.
    Also, no one is allowed to give out about Baby girl screaming, ever! She’s now earned the right to scream like a Howler monkey, imo.

    Like

    • 21 March 2012 17:37

      Heheh! “Howler monkey”. Quite apt!

      But yes, it WAS scary. And we’re very grateful she had the acumen to wake up and alert us. (Just heard she’s feeling a little poorly today. Will have to pick up her thermometer from the old house tonight to check if she’s got a temperature.)

      And thanks for your concern! We’re all safe, but there have obviously been a lot of practicalities to sort out the last couple of days, which has been quite exhausting.

      Like

  7. 23 March 2012 00:35

    Thank you for not dying. The last thing we want to see is for heinakroon.com to be a relic, never updated until WordPress decided they needed the server space. That’s a small part of how other people would be affected by it, I’m sure.

    Would it have made a difference if you had had 110 volt power, as in the U.S., rather than the 220 volt that’s usual in Europe?

    –GJ

    Like

    • 23 March 2012 09:05

      Thank you!

      Not sure about how the difference in voltage would affect the fire risk, but I’d assume the same criteria would remain: check not to overload the sockets and always buy good quality extension leads.

      Like

  8. 27 March 2012 05:00

    This is so scary! I’m so glad you were ok.

    Like

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