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A House Fire Reveals a Community

Anonymity vs. Community

Originally aired on CBC Radio, First Person Singular, 2003 -produced by Karen Levine

Some people on my small suburban street knew me when I wore braces and pigtails. They remember my rusty orange bike with the banana seat and the way I torpedoed their evening paper on the front porch. And even though I live here with my own family now, travel and work take me away - a lot.

For most people on this street, I'm just another nameless neighbor. We share a sidewalk, smile politely at each other and notice when a "For Sale" sign goes up, but for the most part, we're strangers.

I grew up in this town, moved away and eventually returned to raise my own children here. My parents still live at the top of the hill and we've worn a path between our two homes. But people don't linger on their front porch as much as they used to. I thought maybe the world had turned to its computers and workplaces for a sense of community, until the night fire struck a neighbor's home, a few doors away from us.

"Someone help me." A man's screams pierced the night. "My daughter's inside and I can't get her out."

"Stacy, wake up." I shook my husband. "Something's going on outside."

neighborhood house fireNeighborhood house fireOur quiet suburban street erupted with people searching for the source of terror. The roar of fire and exploding glass from a second story window stilled our voices and we turned in stunned silence to watch flames licking the eaves of a neighbor's house. The smell of smoke and the blare of sirens filled the summer night as neighbors stood shoulder to shoulder.

Dressed in only his boxers, a man held a young child in his arms. Two other children sat near his feet on the damp ground, staring straight ahead. The man sobbed, "no, no, no...  He almost drowned out the noise of the crackling fire, but not quite. I counted the children. The oldest son sat beside his younger brother who was wrapped in a blanket. The child in the man's arms was the three-year-old who plays hopscotch on the driveway.

The baby was missing, his one-year-old daughter. I grabbed my husband's arm, shaking my head and beginning the first of many tears that night.

Firefighters jumped from trucks and raced towards the house. Wielding hatchets, some ran into the burning building while others unhooked the hoses and cranked open the fire hydrants. A firefighter stumbled from the building seconds later and fell into the bushes by the door. The father ran towards the house screaming for his daughter and pushed past the coughing firefighter but another pulled him back. His bare chest heaved as he clawed at the florescent yellow jackets of the firefighters.

concern for our neighborConcern for our neighborMy mind jumped from one horrifying thought to another as a firefighter emerged from the smoke, carrying a baby in his arms. She was motionless. We moved, not like individuals anymore, but like amoebae, surging forth around father and daughter. The firefighter knelt down, breathed into the baby's mouth and moved back while her father held her head, his tears falling on her sooty face. She sputtered and then screamed. We sighed collectively, our shoulders sagging in relief.

The father pressed his daughter against his bare chest and thanked God. Any and every God. A neighbor stepped forward and covered the pair in a woolen blanket.

Children from the neighborhood began to appear on doorsteps. Our older two children peeked from our second floor window and called to us. I motioned for them to come outside. Pulling on sweaters, they stumbled across the dewy grass, fear aging their tired faces. They huddled close as another window from the fiery house exploded outwards and flames shot ten feet high, licking the night sky.

The whoosh of water replaced the eerie crackle of flame. Neighbors who normally only wave hello or goodbye turned to each other to lay an arm across shaking shoulders. We stood there in the wet grass and damp night air watching as firefighters worked and police cars arrived.

Concern, not morbid curiosity, drove us to stand freezing and chatting with each other in the middle of the night long after the crisis had passed.

It took less than a day for the story of what happened to reach us. The three-year-old had crawled from her bed, walked to the bathroom and climbed a counter in search of a lighter she'd seen her father hide. She went to brother's bedroom and sat on his bed. While he slept, she rolled the top of the lighter across his acrylic blanket and giggled as sparks erupted into flame. Her brother woke up, and while his bedding and legs burned, he was paralyzed with fear.

The father had raced up and down flights of stairs carrying three children to safety one at a time. But when he returned a fourth time for his baby daughter in a closed bedroom, the wall of smoke pushed him back. In a house he'd lived in for years, he couldn't find her bedroom door. When he stood on the driveway holding his three children and crying for his daughter, his world shrank to a single solitary second.

As I watched a father's anguish turn to joy, I discovered something rare in our world over over-sharing and incessant texting.

meet your neighborMeet your neighborMy world, our world, the one without modems and cell phones, fences or closed doors, was right here, where it's always been. Warm hands tucked into larger trembling ones, cold toes curled into a blanket while sleepy heads drooped, and a community sharing despair and bliss in the space of a breath.

I still travel (too much according to my mother) but I've come to cherish those smiles and waves from neighbors. And when I get one, I stop and listen and share. I shovel other people's driveways - and enjoy it when they catch me in the act. I don't hide behind my cellphone when I get out of my car. When I'm home, I'm home.

I travel because I love to meet new people and hear their stories but the people whose homes surround mine have some pretty darn good stories too.

When's the last time you sat on a neighbor's front porch and just chatted? Share your story here or follow us on Twitter and Facebook and let's start talking!

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