It was only when my eyes began to burn with smoke that I realised this wasn’t the usual late night Archway kids playing barbeque. In fact, after having been on a train from Bangor, after a great few days with my little sister, for 5 hours my eyes were blurred and I was disorientated enough to walk straight into the cloud of ash. It was only when the woman came running out of the door that I realised something was wrong.
As the door flew open, the roar that escaped into the desolate street made me and a passing man stop still as we watch the hysterical woman, now bent double in the middle of the road. With the door open, I could see the contents of the lounge, the pattern on the walls, the photographs and pictures now hanging on an angle, illuminated by the vicious orange light. The flames were already starting to lick the ceiling and send sporadic bursts out of the front door.
They can’t get out- she screamed at us.
Looking up, I saw there were three people on the top floor- three storeys high. A voice from behind shouts at me, telling me to wake the neighbours up. Scraps of fabric are now blowing out of the door, carried on waves of fire. Throwing my bags on the floor I run towards the house next door. With the force of the fire and the age of these old terraced houses the fire could easily spread.
It must have only been about 10.30pm but the lights were off in the house. Perhaps they weren’t home. The pressure of the heat from the flames next door pressed against my face, evaporating any tears that were thinking about falling. I banged furiously on the door for what seemed like an eternity but soon, an old lady, complete with hairnet gradually makes her way down the stairs. Seeing me at the door, she presumes I’m some troublemaker so starts going up stairs again.
An explosion. I bang harder- contemplating in my head at what stage do I give up and give in to my selfish nature and run away. The ceiling was beginning to burn through as items of furniture started to fall from the 1st floor into the inferno of the lounge. Finally her husband opens the door in his underwear and I shout something probably incomprehensible. I grab the shaking old lady by the arm and start to lead her away from the house.
A crash. In the corner of my eye something falls. It takes a minute for me to realise what’s going on. They are jumping. Through the window. Onto their concrete front yard. A metre away from the fence. By this time people in the street are screaming as they watch the bodies, one by one, throw themselves from the top floor.
It took the fire engines 1 hour 20 minutes to put out the fire. Everyone got out and no one was hurt aside from a few broken legs. And my heart has finally started beating at a regular rhythm.
When you see it on films or those horrific fire safety videos you watch as children, you imagine they have added some extra dramatic elements to really power it home. But I can assure you they haven’t. They have tamed it down.There is no way you can capture what it’s like to feel that immense heat or the way your lungs fill with the smoke in a matter of seconds. And that is from outside the house. It does not bear thinking about what it’s like inside- but that family didn’t have to think about it, they had to live it.
Eight doors down from my house, their home bears the scars of the fire- a black scorch mark stains the front door, warning people of the danger that lies behind the board that barricades us out and the memories and remains of their past inside. The smell of burnt wood carries itself on the breeze, creeping through our open windows.
All I keep thinking about is the strange presence, almost tactile, of the thick smoke as it curled its way around the trees and the dimly lit lamposts and the eerie silence of the street.
The silence that meant no smoke alarm.
As soon as I went back inside we checked our fire alarms. And plugged the battery back in.
Toasting pitta bread set it off so in the morning the battery was taken out again and left in a safe place on top of the fridge.
Could I jump?