There was a fire today just down the street, just a block from my place, in a building I pass on my way to work. When I got outside this morning, I could hear shouting. After a few minutes, I realized someone was shouting for help. I didn’t think much of it right away: there is often a lot of shouting in my neighborhood. But the shouting didn’t stop, so I started looking for the source. I don’t know which I saw first, the smoke or the two men leaning out of an open window shouting for help.
Three people were on the phone to 911 as I passed, so I continued on to work. By the time I was a block past the fire, you could see the smoke blocks away. One fire engine screamed past me on its way to the building. For the next twenty minutes or so, I kept hearing more and more sirens.
I was tingling with nerves by the time I got to the office. My boss reminded me that I could check the breaking news on the Tribune page. I did, and got the news as it arrived. At least eleven hurt. At least two jumped. No one seems to have died.
I was a little surprised at how upset I was. I can’t imagine how I would react if I were trapped in a burning building. Would I shout for help? Would I be as calm as one of the men in the building seemed to have been? Would I try to save anything other than my flash drive? Would I jump? I can’t imagine jumping. Jumping seems like death, even if it’s not that high.
When I imagined myself in the same situation as those trapped men, I couldn't keep from thinking that their most pressing thought, behind the cries for help, must have been, “I might die today. In minutes. Soon. Today.” We all know that any day could be our dying day; something like a fire a few doors down makes that thought a bit less abstract than it usually is.
I felt terribly weak for leaving, for walking away while those men shouted and shouted and shouted. There was nothing I could do. Three people were on the phone calling 911. I would have been in the way. And still. Perhaps I could have talked to them until the engines arrived. Encouraged them to keep from panicking. Assured them that engines and ambulances were on their way and that they would be rescued. I could have done that. I didn’t do that. I am ashamed.