Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Public Disservice

Last December 13, 2007, a fire nearly razed the apartment I was renting in Project 4, QC. To date there is no sufficient explanation about what started the fire. Well, there are rumors but this is not about rumor mongering but this is about getting my frustrations out.

Around 8:30 in the evening my landlord rather nervously shouted that there was a fire. For the first time in my life, I panicked. Not because everyone was caught off guard but everything I own in this world is in my apartment including my life's works. To lose them would not only be unthinkable but a huge blow to my morale and well being.

The first thing I did was call my dad for help then I stuffed my laptop, videocam, passport, wallet, Zinedine Zidane France jersey and some discs (containing my work) into a duffel bag and backpack. I had to forcibly grab my dog that hid under the bed and push her out to safety. The flames threatened to engulf the entire neighborhood and put a huge damper on the Holiday cheer. People were clambering over the roofs of the other houses to get to safety. They were carrying everything they could possibly carry; adrenaline giving them an extra dose of strength to carry the improbable. A neighbor's roof was unable to support the weight that it gave in with a hideous and sickening roar that added to the panic and chaos.

I stood shocked and felt totally helpless. It isn't so much about being materialistic but damn... that's everything that I own.

The first fire trucks (they had QC markings) arrived some 10 minutes after I had gotten out. To my horror, they had no water! That snapped me out of my stupor. I immediately gathered my neighbors to combat the fire using pails, garden hoses, jugs of mineral water, and cube ice! Thank God for firewalls because the inferno would have devoured everything in the neighborhood. With us at the wall fighting the fire (the firemen just stood by smoking cigarettes), we had a chance to keep it from spreading into our side of the street until help arrived. The blaze wasn't something that was going to be easy to put out. It had already razed several dozen houses in the area and as it tore through a nearby squatter area it was like pouring gasoline into the conflagration.

I'm not sure how long it took but after a spell, the fire trucks from the Chinese Volunteers arrived. Mercifully, they had water.

It was a surreal moment. There were people up on the roof taking videos of the fire with their camera phones. There was no police line to hold back the onlookers or even direct traffic. Home owners who saved what they could would throw their belongings to the ground and rush back to grab whatever they could. With their belongings unattended, opportunistic thieves wasted no time in pilfering whatever was left of their lives. Two looters were caught but were let go since there was no time to take them to the precinct. Instead they were slugged a couple of times in the face to leave them with a telling reminder of their crime. Now whether that would have any effect on them we'll never know.

My two brothers soon arrived separately and began helping save what they could of my belongings. After that they climbed up the roof to help with the fire fighting.

By 1230, the fire trucks incredulously began to pull out despite the fire not totally put out. Their fire chief said that it had been "contained" and posed no further danger. I grabbed him by the hand and pointed to the embers that were floating skyward. Obviously the fire wasn't out. If there were smoldering embers that were floating into the night sky that meant the fire was still feeding on some things. Just as the fire trucks (there were 16 of them) were pulling out, the blaze roared back to life and rose high. These firemen were unreal. Some of them went around the neighborhood asking homeowners for juice. Yup, juice. Not water!

The walls of the apartment were smoking. If left unchecked, it could have exploded and let the fire inside the compound walls. By now, we had been fighting the fire for like four hours and I could feel my body and all its unused muscles aching. I was drenched with sweat and water and black from the smoke.

Two more fire trucks arrived and by 330am the fire was finally put out.

The apartment was a mess. It was black and sooty from the fire. The ceiling and the roof damaged from both the fire and water. The whole place smelled of smoke. Some of my belongings were destroyed from either the rush to save them or from the fire. I lost some precious items to looters.

I wasn't able to sleep anymore that day and immediately began to clean what I could. My body gave in from nearly seven hours of fire fighting and fatigue that I would be bogged down by a fever for nearly two weeks.

There are still moments when I wake up at night to check if I am still alive and that there's no fire threatening to take my life and what I own. If anything, that moment of clarity that spurred me to action was a sign from God not to take things for granted.

I came away from that experience with more distrust and disgust in our police forces and fire department. How many times have we heard about firemen looting the homes they were supposed to save? How many times have we heard about cops not being where they are supposed to be?

I never liked them. And I never will.

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