Thursday, April 03, 2014

Our Time in a Fire

I’m remiss in writing a few words about Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy, two Boston firefighters who died battling a blaze in the Back Bay last week. 

From every account, both were upstanding men.  Walsh, 42, followed his dad’s footsteps and leaves behind a widow and three children, ages 8 – 3.  Kennedy, 33, single, was an ex-Marine and an Iraq War combat veteran; many family members survive him.  He ran marathons in Boston and Chicago.

You never think about the Fire Department until the day you need them.  It was more than two decades ago, but it seems like yesterday Liz and I woke up in our Chicago apartment to a fire in the early hours, just before 6 am on a Saturday in April.

We’d been out the night before, to a Lincoln Park Italian restaurant, celebrating my new job with Tribune Media Services.  As dinner came to an end, we considered going to Pops for Champagne, another Lincoln Park hot spot, but decided to call it night, instead.

Our apartment, located just north of the intersection of Division and LaSalle, was near a Chicago Fire House.  I was awakened by the sirens, hearing them close in on our building. 

It prompted me to get out of bed and walk to our front door.  Before opening it, I touched it.  The door was cold.  As I opened it, in flew a huge puff of black, ashy smoke, instantly darkening the walls around the door. 

I quickly closed it and ran back to our bedroom, yelling there was a fire and we needed to get out.  Liz was up in an instant, watering down bath towels to place under the door. 

She told me to call the Fire Department, and I asked a question that’s been inscribed in Page Family lore:

“What’s the number?”

“Nine-One-ONE!” she bellowed from the front door.

Then, just before putting down the wet towels, she opened the door, yelling into the dark cloud if anyone called the Fire Department.

“We’re here, ma’am,” said an unseen firefighter in the hallway, his presence blocked out by the dark smoke.

The firefighter then told us to evacuate. 

Our apartment, located on the second floor, was above an open garage.  The windows were so drafty that we covered them in plastic wrap, from December to either April or May, as a means of keeping Chicago’s subzero temperatures out of our little abode. 

Now the plastic was a trap, making it nearly impossible to open the window to the waiting ladder, provided courtesy of the Chicago Fire Department, for our escape.  I grabbed our butcher knife, slicing through the plastic so the window could be opened.

There was a firefighter on the ladder as Liz went out the window.  She’d been calm but as she got onto the ladder and turned to climb down, the firefighter instantly sensed she was nervous and scared.  He coaxed her down in no time flat.

Then I was out, on the ladder in front of the same firefighter, seeing a plume of smoke coming from the window.  Like Liz, I felt nervous and started to shake.  With a few reassuring words from the firefighter, I, too, was down on the ground quickly.

We shook hands with the firefighters, thanking them for their help and walked out to LaSalle Drive.  I looked at my watch.  It was 6:30. 

What struck me that morning was the high level of professionalism each firefighter exhibited.  They took their jobs very seriously even though, in the grand scheme of things, this was a minor incident in which no one died or was injured.

I also recall a brief chat with the Fire Department’s lieutenant or captain who was making sure everyone was okay.  The level of professionalism was nothing short of outstanding.

Within about 15 or 20 minutes, the all clear was given and we walked into the building, looking for Jerry, our landlord, one of the nicest guys we ever met, who also lived in the building.  He was in his office, absolutely beside himself in shock, fear and probably some anger.  He gave Liz the biggest hug he may have ever given in his life.

We assured him we were fine and asked what happened.  The fire started when our neighbor fell asleep before putting out a candle, which tipped over and lit up the place around 5 am. 

Our neighbor was also in the office.  Her father was trying to comfort her.  She was in tears, telling her roommate, over the phone, what happened.

Jerry, then, gave us a tour of the burned out apartment.  For something that was a minor incident, the damage was shocking.  The walls were either black with soot or marked by flames.  The area rugs were burned to a crisp.  It didn’t look like much survived. 

By that time, it was 7 and what to do now?  Seriously, in terms of weekend excitement, how can you top ditching your apartment because of a fire?  You couldn’t.  We were filled with excitement and needed to do something.

We walked over to our apartment, making sure everything was okay.  It was.  Then we did a lot of people do on a Saturday morning in Chicago, we went to Tempo for breakfast.

The firefighters I’ve met are great people.  They take incredible risks – and do so willingly – sometimes putting themselves in great peril. 

Boston firefighters Edward J. Walsh and Michael R. Kennedy were two of them.  May they rest in peace and never be forgotten.

No comments: