My sister lost her house a few months ago. The fire started in her bedroom. The source of the fire was an electrical cord that ran under her bed to a lamp. Due to lack of closet space, my sister and husband store many belongings under the bed. This combination overheated the cord and started the fire. Luckily my parents live next door and were able to raise the alarm. Little Sister rushed home from work and we rushed to her aid to help with the clean up. We wore old clothes, brought boxes, garbage bags and facemasks to protect us from the fumes.
When we pulled up three men were in front of the house, one had a badge around his neck. At first we couldn’t figure out what was going on. They were taking things out of the house and so was my sister. She was working furiously and with such a concentration that I don’t think she even knew that we were there. Were the men helping her save her belongings, getting them out of the smoke filled house? Our confusion turned to disbelief when we finally realized that they were not helping my sister, but these men were here to evict her.
We asked her what was going on and she just kept on working to keep her belongings from ending up in the dumpster. Soon we were helping her, dragging out soot-covered possessions before the men could get a hold of them. We started filling my mother’s garage and backyard with the salvaged belongings, a stove from the garage, televisions, stereos, and other valuables from inside the house. Luckily or not depending on how you look at it, the crew that came to evict her was a three-man crew when the number should have been six. With a six-man crew they would have emptied that house quickly and more efficiently. They kept mumbling under their breath about the fire. They mumbled how they wished they had facemasks. But when the fire marshal came in and gave his verdict that the fire was definitely an accident, the men became more sympathetic.
The three men seeing the scope of possessions that my sister’s family had accumulated in 25 years quickly became tired and became more concerned with their own health, inhaling all that soot. and so their resolved weakened. And when they saw my sister’s tenacity and single-minded determination of retrieving her belongings their resolve weakened further. They started asking her if she wanted this item or that item and helped move a piece or two.
Apparently they were commissioned to take out only very large pieces and were not interested in the smaller items. Besides with most of the surfaces covered in the house by papers, bills, books and the like they just tossed them to the floor. Not only was there soot everywhere they added to the debris pile creating soot clouds, which made it harder for them to breathe and harder for us overall. We scoured every room making split second decisions on what was expendable and what should be left behind.
Her husband hurried home from work expecting to deal with the fire situation. To say he was taken aback by the eviction is such an understatement because it in no way describes the range of emotions that came over his face all at the same time. He kept asking the same question over and over to his wife. But she kept on working. He wanted to have a show down, but she kept on working.
The fire was contained in hallway and rear bedroom. I had never been in a house after a fire and was shocked to see how every wall in the house was black as though charred but in reality covered in soot. We worked until nightfall to begin again the next day.
My sister was still very quiet, exhausted, but still concentrating on all the work yet to be done. She wasn't ready to talk about it. It was too soon. I took a few moments to cry my eyes out. I know how hard she has struggled the last few years trying to keep it all together and I felt her anguish. As nightfall came, the work stopped for us, but it kept going for her. She began the laundry, trying to remove the smell of smoke from the clothes we saved. Finally, I had to ask her the inevitable question, “Is it all right if I give you a hug before I leave?” When she answered yes, I put my arms around her and as soon as I touched her, she began to sob uncontrollably.
The mortgage crisis has finally hit too close to home.