Updated: May 1, 2020
Our neighbor's apartment was destroyed by fire a little over a year ago. We lived on the 5th floor in #504, and her flat/apartment was #502. It was a traumatic event for our family. Last month, we reflected and talked about this, as it had been a year since the fire occurred. Since then I've been considering telling more of that story here.
Gray and Sarala had just returned back home from the US. Gray had a week of meetings in Richmond, VA, and for Sarala's birthday, she traveled with him to Raleigh, stayed one week with her grandparents in NC, and went on a trip with her cousins and grandmother to New York City. Gray came back to Raleigh, picked her up, and they traveled back home to me and the boys and landed after midnight on March 13th, the day after Sarala's birthday. Sarala and Gray went to bed for what they could sleep that night after traveling over the ocean. We had somewhat of a "normal" day on the the 13th, as normal as you can have with 2 jet-laggers in the house. Later that evening, we were settling down for one of our family favorite meals overseas: Mexican, and we were going to have cupcakes afterward to celebrate Sarala's birthday. Dinner was basically ready and I was putting it on the table, but not surprising to anyone in our family, and a common occurrence for our family, I was missing one key thing for our meal--tortillas! Gray offered to run to our market--it was maybe 100 yards from our door to grab some. When he opened the door, there was a LOT of smoke, and we knew there was a fire!
Gray yelled for everyone to get out, and we also got our dog. For a split second, I knew I needed to think of what to grab. My purse was a foot from where I was standing, but I didn't grab it. Our computers were right there on the shelf behind the dinner table, but we didn't grab them. We have lived and traveled abroad for more than 15 years, and we didn't grab our passports--I know! What in the world?!?!?! We grabbed our kids and dog and phones and got out! All the kids ran down the stairs--it was all happening SO fast! Also true to family dinner times, our kids were making rounds through showers. As I hit the stairwell I turned to Gray to ask if he had seen all of the kids leave. In the rush of sending kids out the door we realized we didn't know who had left and remembered the last place we saw Parks was in the shower. Quickly there in the hallway I grabbed Gracie (the dog) from Gray, and with the front door locked, Gray ran back to go inside the apartment after Parks, whom we assumed did not make it out of the shower. It was already so black with smoke that he could not see to get the key in the keyhole. He flipped this wooden door stop which attaches to the door frame to prevent door slams from the sea breezes, so he would be able to find his way out--so, our door was propped open. Parks was not in there--when Parks heard the commotion and realized there was a fire, he put his clothes on and bolted out the door and was the first one out--he had always been terrified of fire. When Gray entered and ran to the bedroom, he did not see him in the house. He opened the dining window and looked down to the parking lot and saw all the kids were down there waving and asking where Mom was at, so he got out as fast as he could. I cannot explain how fast all of this was happening--I still had not made it down the stairs with the dog. With the door propped open, our house was filling up with smoke so quickly. At this point, Gray was crawling out and covering his face with his shirt to get out. Gray remembers pulling the door shut but not realizing the door stop was still in place he kept running (blind at this point) to get to the stairs. Our door remained open, and our entire house (just under 1000 square feet) continued to fill with smoke for almost an hour and then the main entry and front rooms were also filled with water from the fire hoses (coming from our neighbor's home and out her front door) as the firemen finally extinguished the fire.
The kids and I were on the front side of the house and we could not see the main fire. We could only see the smoke pouring through our dining window, as the curtains were blowing out with it where Gray had opened it to count kids previously. I was sure those curtains and everything else was going up in flames, and I was truly okay with it. I was so very thankful to God that our family and our neighbors (from the home with the fire) were outside that I did not care at all about what happened to any thing in our house. Gray was on the other side of the building watching the fire and talking with other neighbors. The kids, dog, and I went to dear friends' home, Chuck and Barb, and they took very good care of us for the next few days, allowing us to stay in their home, feeding us, caring for us, and it was just so great to be WITH them.
Another wild part to the story was that our neighbors in #501 and #503 did not get out of their apartments. (If you look very carefully at the fire picture at the top of the post to the left of the fire, you can zoom in, you will see the man on the balcony.) By the time they realized what was happening (about the time when Gray was crawling out the door), and they saw all the black smoke, they were scared to leave and they decided to just stay in their homes on their balconies for almost an hour, talking and texting to neighbors and family members hoping they would be all right. They were frightened to death as they waited it out.
Later that night, Gray and our friend Chuck went to our house to try to see what the damage was. Of course there was no power, and they tried to get the water off of the floor and furniture. We were scheduled to leave for Thailand in a few days. We knew it would be good to just get away, wait for some building repairs (we were at the mercy of our society complex for some things like water and power), and then come back and work. It really was so good for us--especially our kids--to have that time away to rest and process through. We spent the next few days cleaning as much as possible and packing for Thailand.
Our kids had new fears, wonders, and thoughts, and it was good to process and give some time before they saw our home. We did not know what a gift and good thing that trip to Thailand was, but the Lord certainly did. Before we returned, we were able to find a temporary, furnished apartment where we could stay in the building next to ours while we cleaned, worked, waited on the painters, and could move back into our home.
About 5 weeks after the fire happened, we were back into our home, and we ate mexican food (with tortillas!), made those cupcakes for Sarala, and sang "Happy Birthday," but we all knew we were celebrating so much more!
Those were a wild 5 weeks busy with normal life, work, a little school, a trip, a counseling class, and yet somehow the Lord brought us through with joy, smiles, and hope. This year, as we looked back, our hearts were so full of thankfulness, amazement, and just bewilderment of that wild event in our lives.
Here is one thing I learned about fire: the smoke goes in with such powerful force that anything that is not airtight, the smoke and soot gets into and goes all the way inside as far as it can to the back and falls down and covers the top of every. single. thing! Our closets and closed drawers had smoke all the way to the back. Our "homeschool" cabinet with a lip that closes over the gap in between the doors had soot all in it.
EVERY single place in our apartment was touched by that fire. I wish I had more pictures. I really thought I had a picture of our dining room table...but I think it is only etched so distinctly in my mind--our set table, with charred taco meat, a large bowl of salsa covered in soot, grated cheese that was melted together and covered in black...the perfect clean circles when the plates were moved. The cupcakes in the kitchen with a black covering. It is all so very hard to describe.
Every single thing smelled like smoke and fire. Weeks and months later, we would still get a whiff of it every now and then. So, when I read and reread passages of scripture like Daniel 3 when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the burning fiery furnace heated seven times more than usual...and the flame of the fire killed those men who took them to furnace. But, when those men came out, everyone saw that "the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and NO SMELL of fire had come upon them." Daniel 3:27 When I read those passages, I am even more amazed at the power of the Lord.
Do you realize how many songs are about fire? How many Bible verses are about fire? (about 400 give or take depending on the version you use.) I cannot sing the word fire the same! Just as some of my good friends experienced and lived through the Nepal earthquake April 2015 do not read the words in scripture about the earth shaking or great quakes the same... Just as wonderful families that have adopted children into their homes do not read the words adoption or being brought into God's family the same...it is the same for us about fire--we are forever changed for this experience.
This is one of our family's favorite songs after the fire:
Listen to it, and I really recommend you read Daniel 3 for great reflection. Also, we know "there is another in the fire" means so much more than a real fire--it is about knowing Jesus is WITH us in life...some lyrics: "should we ever need reminding of how I've been set free...There is a cross that bears the burden where another died for me." Listen and consider how Jesus is with you and nothing (no fire, calamity, lockdown, disease, sickness, or anything else on this earth that can separate us from Him).
"Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:34-39
Our kids especially continue to tell of the Lord's help, valuable life lessons, ways this experience touched them, and God's grace. While it hurt to watch a few of them struggle and fear the first few days and weeks afterward, I am thankful for the ways they reflect now and they way they talk of the Lord after experiencing this. I am especially glad that this experience taught them things that shape their hearts to trust the Lord, see both their earthly father and their Heavenly Father as kind and protective, and to reflect on grace we did not deserve.
We also experienced the power of community. So many good friends jumped in to help, offering their homes, their work, their washing machines, food, keeping our kids, stopping by, prayer, and just encouraging words! It took a lot of people, labor, and time to get our home back livable. We are so incredibly thankful we were not alone. Community is so beautiful! My heart has especially thought of our dear friends this past month, and I am thankful to have these wonderful friendships and I miss them so much since we moved.
I am only sharing our experience as we experienced it. I still know and recognize what our sweet neighbor went through was so difficult. I will not tell all of her story here, but she had already experienced trials and struggles in her life. It was incredible to see our community rally around her and help her and her family. Our society and her insurance worked to get her back in her home, and she moved back in a few months ago. So many of our friends and family from back in the US supported and helped her. Even as we moved out of India just a few months after the fire, the Lord orchestrated it that we could share many of our belongings and household things with her. We got closer to her and her daughter after the fire, and we still keep in touch with them. They are back in their home and doing well.
We were not in a fire, and we lost very little--just time and energy for cleaning everything. A year later, I can say that I don't dwell on that fire, and our family has moved on....for the most part. Yet, we do make sure we have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, and for sure, our family is forever changed after that experience. My kids still often speak up about it, sharing about it during Bible studies, class settings, and family conversations. I also know that standing outside of my home with my family watching smoke pour out of my window forever changed my perspective on a lot of things. While I still cannot fully say I am thankful for that fire, I most definitely am thankful for a lot of life lessons, reflection, and perspectives gained from it. We are thankful especially for the grace and mercy the Lord poured out when we needed it.