Monday, October 13, 2008


by Gina Sestak

In 1994, my house burned down. I've been thinking about that lately, not because of any incendiary leanings, but because my old insurance carrier, AIG, has been in the news. Being in a fire is something that I wouldn't wish on anyone but, as a writer, the experience provides a wealth of material. One of my unsold manuscripts, Risen From Flames, involves a fire and I was able to use so many of the sensory/tactile memories not only of the fire itself but afterwards: the smell of damp burnt carpeting, the crunch of fallen plaster under foot.

I always thought I knew what to do in an emergency, but I hadn't reckoned on the brain-addling effects of smoke inhalation or how disorienting it can be in the dark when all electric power has gone out and a thick cloud of smoke is billowing through the halls. I forgot the basic rules of fire safety, so let me repeat the most important one here now: When the building you are in is on fire, GET OUT.

The fire started sometime during the night. My ex-husband, Terry, had lost his lease and was staying in my guest room. He came into my bedroom around 3 a.m. and said, "Gina, wake up, the house is on fire." He was still listed as beneficiary on my life insurance at the time. Those eight little words cost him $40,000.

Once awake, I heard the smoke alarm. I think I must have been inhaling toxic fumes to have remained asleep. The smoke alarm was hanging right outside my bedroom door and blaring very loud. I got up and looked into the room where Terry had been sleeping. Mid-way through, there was a solid wall of flame.

"We have to put this out," I said.

"We can't put this out," Terry responded.

It didn't occur to me that he might be right, or that I had a fire extinguisher on the first floor -- assuming that fires were most likely to start in the kitchen or furnace area, I kept in hanging near the cellar stairs. Instead, I went into the bathroom and filled a tiny waste basket with water from the sink, then went to throw it at the fire. The water disappeared into the fire. It didn't even turn visibly to steam. I realized then that he was right. We couldn't put this out.

Terry had been waiting nervously in the hallway while I did this, perhaps wondering whether to leave me there or drag me out. We went downstairs and I sent him to wake the neighbors. We were in the end house of a four-unit row. No one slept in the house next door, which functioned as a doctor's office in daylight hours, but a couple with a baby occupied the next house down. It was important that they be warned. I, meanwhile, went to call the fire department, from the room directly under the room that was on fire. Fire safety rule number two: Things cave in when they burn. DO NOT STAND UNDER THE BURNING ROOM. A smart person would have gone with Terry to the neighbors, and asked them to call 911.

The 911 operator told me to get out of the house.

City paramedics took Terry and me to the hospital. We had inhaled a lot of smoke and he was burned. The mattress he'd been sleeping on caught fire; that probably saved our lives because he woke up when his hand began to burn.

The house wasn't a total loss. Saying it burnt down is an exaggeration. Between the flames and the fire hoses, though, it was essentially gutted. The brick walls made it through okay and some of the floors survived, but there was a point when you could stand in my kitchen on the first floor and look up through what had been the second floor and attic to the underside of the roof. AIG came through. The house was rebuilt from the walls in and all my damaged furniture, etc. was replaced. No one was hurt. Even the pets (about a dozen mice) survived.

So, in retrospect, the fire was an interesting experience.


Martha Reed said...

Gina, that's frightening but boy! You proved you're a writer. What a wealth of honest detail.

I saw a church fire one Good Friday and it was amazing: beautiful and frightening all at the same time. The flames got so hot you could see sheets of heat flickering against the sky.

I used it too, in my 1st novel. Stuff like that is too good to drop.

Thanks for sharing.


Annette said...

Good God, woman, is there anything you HAVEN'T experienced????

I, too, have been up close and personal with fire, though not to the extend you have, Gina. It is a terrifying experience, but great fodder for fiction writing.

Yesterday morning, in fact, as I was settling in for what promised to be a funny and entertaining panel at Bouchercon (if you ever get a chance to see Stuart McBride in person, grab it), the fire alarms went off and a recorded voice ordered everyone to leave the building. Do not use the elevators. I was quite happy, at that point, that my room was in the OTHER hotel. Especially when I heard the fire trucks coming. Of course, Joyce's car was parked UNDER the "burning" hotel and as Gina mentioned, things cave in DOWNWARD. I'm not sure if it was a false alarm or a very small fire, but all was well and Bouchercon picked up a mere fifteen minutes later.

Annette said...

My early morning apologies to Mr. MacBride for leaving out the "a."

Joyce said...

I swear, Gina, you are the most interesting person I've ever met!

I'll second Annette. Stuart MacBride is hysterical.

nancy said...

Gina, may I borrow the crunch of plaster? I've got a gutted houe in my new book.

And once again, I want to ask the memoir question, but I won't. Not really. But I have a how-to article for you, girl.

nancy said...

House. A gutted house.


Gina said...

Sure, Nancy, borrow away for your house or your houe.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Horrifying story, Gina.

Sounds like there's a mystery story in there somewhere.