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:
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!