Up in Smoke

It was a hot night, and I wasn’t sleeping well. It must have been around 4:45am when I awoke with a start. It sounded like raindrops or hail hitting my window air conditioner. In retrospect, I must have smelled smoke as well because I was in full-on panic mode. I jumped out of bed and fumbled to turn off the air conditioner, but the noise continued. As I looked around my apartment—my home, my beautiful little 1920’s apartment with original wood floors, crown molding and arched doorways—I saw wisps of smoke dancing around the ceiling. I ran into the kitchen to make sure nothing was on fire and caught a whiff of smoke. The smoke was pleasant smelling, and I thought someone had fallen asleep with incense lit. I grabbed my cell phone, threw on my Birkenstocks and ran up and down the first and second floor hallways, looking for the source of the incense. When I didn’t find incense smoke coming from any doors, I began to worry. I poked my head out the front door to see if a neighboring building was on fire. As I looked outside, I was surprised to see a woman across the street staring back at me. The way she was looking at me made me nervous. “Is my building on fire?”, I yelled. “Yes”, she replied. I asked if she had called 911, and she had not. I stood and waited for what seemed like forever for my 911 call to connect, and as I waited I saw a police car pull up. The police and fire stations are within blocks of my apartment so I assume they saw the smoke before any of us did. I ran back into my apartment, figuring it was safe because I hadn’t seen flames. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best idea. I went into my kitchen looking for the most important things to take with me. I saw thick smoke in the building’s courtyard, and as I was standing in the kitchen doorway, the wall next to me began to bubble and pop and I could feel the heat radiating on my skin. I screamed and ran for the living room where I hastily threw on sweat pants, grabbed my phone charger, laptop, and purse. When I got into the hall, no one else was out there and still no alarms were going off. I ran up and down the hall banging on doors and walls as loud as I could and I ran out of the building. Fire trucks were beginning to pull up as I called my two friends who live in the building and left them pleading messages to wake up and get out. I sat down on the curb, slung my purse over my shoulder, hugged my laptop close and began to cry. I watched several firemen work together to pull heavy hoses to the fire hydrants. Then I watched as no water came out. They disconnected the hose and pulled it over to a different hydrant. My neighbors and friends gathered outside the building, and we watched smoke pour out to the background of a beautiful sunrise. Fortunately everyone got out without as much as a scratch. I figured my things would be smoke damaged, but at that time I thought we would be back in the building later that day. At around 8am, I knew I was being too optimistic; flames began shooting out the top of the building. A few buildings in the area were evacuated as black, rancid smelling smoke hung ominously over downtown Madison.

The rest of the day was a blur. I told my story to the Red Cross representative, the newspaper, and the detective. I called my parents and posted pictures on Facebook. We had meetings with the fire department a few times that day to get updates.  I went to a friend’s house to get out of the hot sun and take a shower. Smokey smelling water ran down the drain as I washed my hair. My mom came into town and took me to the mall to buy some essentials. It was the most overwhelming shopping trip I have ever experienced. All of the items in the stores represented the massive loss I was facing. I had nothing but the pajamas on my back, and I did not know where to start.

By 3pm the fire was raging on in the top floor and the small attic. Water was rushing out the doors and windows like a river. At some point the roof collapsed, and when I came back to the building at 7pm I could see sky through the windows on the top floor. Some windows were broken and the hallway walls, once white, were now black. Other windows were carefully preserved. A basil plant sat neatly on a 2nd story window sill, undisturbed. At 10pm, flames were still being extinguished on the 3rd floor, but the fire was under control. The old building was superbly constructed with quality, heavy materials;  it put up a good fight but in the end the fire won.

They do not yet know how the fire started but they do know it started in the restaurant, which was in the basement of the building. Flames traveled up the air vent that ran through my wall. The popping noises that woke me up were the fire in the wall, trying to escape. The building was destroyed and everything was left covered in water and damaged by smoke. Because the fire went up my wall, the apartment sustained a lot of fire damage. I was told my refrigerator was even melted shut.

As I write this it has been exactly one month since that day. My life is slowly getting back to normal, thanks to the support of my amazing family, boyfriend, friends, company and co-workers. The support has been overwhelming and generous beyond words. I still have not been allowed back in the building, and I’m told I never will be. Through the weeks I have come to terms with the loss of my things. I can buy new clothes, my iPod is replaceable and I’m lucky to have gotten out unharmed. The impermanence of life, which is typically easy to ignore, has taken center stage in this drama. It seems like every day I remember another sentimental item that perished in the fire; my grandmother’s Kitchen Aid stand mixer, the painting my younger brother made for me, my Christmas ornaments. The hardest part is not having a place that feels like home. When I woke up the morning of June 30th, I had no idea it would be the last time I’d ever get to see my home and I miss it greatly.

This experience has taught me some life lessons, but also some practical lessons I never hoped to learn:

  1. Get a fire box for your important documents (passport, car deed, etc.) and put it near the front door so the fireman can easily find it.
  2. If you live in an apartment, get renter’s insurance.
  3. Think about the necessities you would like to grab if there were a fire (car keys, wallet, cell phone, computer) and make sure you keep those things in the same place every day so you can easily locate them in an emergency.
  4. Talk to your family or roommates about an emergency action plan. Make sure everyone’s first priority is getting out safely and pick a meeting spot.

I sincerely hope that no one reading this post ever has to go through this, but if you do, hopefully my story and these tips will make things a little easier.

Related fire information:




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Becca McKnight

Senior Recruitment Specialist at Promega Corporation
Becca is a Recruitment Specialist at Promega where she gets to interview fascinating people and do yoga during the lunch hour. She earned her BS in psychology with a minor in dance at the University of Iowa. In her free time you can find her dancing, practicing yoga or cooking.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience about one of the scariest events anyone can survive. I am so sorry for the loss of your home and belongings. When you mentioned that the fire was climbing up the walls, a shiver of fear ran through me at how fast and sneaky the fire behaved. I hope your distress becomes a distant memory someday, and that you soon find a better place to call home.

  2. Hi Becca…just got done reading this…wow. It gives me chills to read what you went through.Years from now you will read this and it will bring everything back to you in a flash…it is that clearly written.
    I am just so thankful that you are ok.
    Lot of love and hugs,Sue XO

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