fire (photography on Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands)

This is gonna be a long one.....

Two years ago at 5 am in the morning, the morning after St. Patricks Day, March 18 to be exact, my husband and I sat bolt upright in bed at the exact same time.  We had both heard something completely and utterly unnatural to our ears and were immediately panicked.  Instinct told us to move and move fast, so we did.  Flying out of bed and racing down the hallway, our fears were confirmed.  Our apartment was on fire, and the fire was already big and blocking the exit.  The sound we had heard was a great 'wooshing' sound.  It only could have been something large being ignited.  The large thing happened to be our front porch and it was completely engulfed in flames.  We ran to get the fire extinguisher but after getting it, realized the doors had already melted shut, not that it would have done any good, the fire was too big and it may have been a lot worse if we actually could have gotten the door open.  After realizing the exit was not an exit anymore we started to panic a bit.  We ran and got our one and a half year old out of his room, then raced into our bedroom at the back of the apartment, slamming the door behind us, because the smoke was coming in thick and fast already.  This is only a matter of minutes, like two minutes.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think a building could go up in flames at such an alarming pace.  The amount of adrenaline going through my body during all this is something I hope I never have to feel again.  You feel very strong but shaky, terrified and sick to your stomach at the same time.  You also see things very clearly and your brain seems to be moving much faster and more efficiently than normal.  Instinct had taken over and I was just doing what I was told to do.  I didn't even feel like I had a choice.  I don't remember conscientiously deciding anything.  Just run.  Get away.

Once we were in the bedroom and away from immediate danger I had a moment to calm myself, however brief that moment was.  Black smoke was coming through the door thicker and thicker.  We really had no other choice but to jump out the windows.  It was our only option.  Our apartment was on the second floor and looking down, it seemed like we were really high, but like I said, it was the only thing we could do.  Now we just had to figure out the best way to do it.  I decided the best thing was to tie the bedsheets to the window frame and scale down.  In theory, this seems like a simple thing and it should work really well, and it did work, just not as well as I had hoped.  We ripped off the sheets, tied them together, then tied them to the frame.  That part worked pretty good.  Our plan was, I go out first, go down, then my husband can drop our son to me, then he comes down.  I didn't think I had enough upper body strength to swing myself out the window onto the sheet, so that's why I went first.  By the way, this window was really small.  I had to completely flatten myself to squeeze out.  If I had to do that, you can imagine how hard it was for my husband to get out.  The next day, we both had huge bruises on the inside of our thighs from getting through that window.  Also, I would be terrified to do that again, not on an adrenaline high. I seriously didn't think twice about it.  Just crawled right out that window with no fear.  Guess the fear behind the door was a lot scarier!  That's what's still so amazing to me.  Something within me, just took over the controls for awhile.  Really surreal.

Anyway, my husband swung me out, and yes, there is no way I could have done it on my own.  It was difficult.  I could barely manage to hang onto the bed sheet. I think I went down about 4 feet maybe, then decided to just jump. It would have taken me way to long to get down and my husband and little boy were still in the apartment.  I pushed back and jumped.  Landed on my feet, awkwardly, but I did land on my feet.  Think I fell down after landing, but can't really remember.  Then it was time to drop my son.  My husband was hesitant, scared I wouldn't catch him.  I don't blame him, I duck if someone throws a ball my way.  I knew I would catch him though.  I started screaming for him to drop him now!  Finally he did, and I caught him, again, awkwardly, but I caught him.  Poor baby, he was so upset and crying so hard.  Screaming.  By then a neighbor ran around the back where we were and I handed her Tharin, then went back to give any help to my husband I could.  He squeezed out and went down the sheet a lot more gracefully than I did.  After we were all out, that's when I let the panic back in and the crying started.  I'm pretty sure I just walked around in circles crying.  I remember feeling completely helpless and dazed.

After we got out, I don't have really vivid memories of what happened.  I know another neighbor came over and brought us into her house.  She didn't want us to watch our place burn down, and I'm thankful for that.  It was hard enough the way it was.  I was fairly hysterical for awhile and only calmed down after the EMT's arrived, because I wanted them to think I was fine.  Physically, we were all fine.  Mentally, not so much. :-)

I was terribly worried about my cat.  Did I let him out the night before or was he in the apartment when the fire started?  I walked over after the fire was out and looked for him.  No Jason anywhere.  The firemen were still there and I talked to them about it.  Did they find my cat in the apartment?  They assured me, they did not find a cat inside.  They also assured me that if the cat was in the apartment, it almost certainly got out.  Apparently cats rarely perish in a fire.  If there is even the smallest way to get out, cats get out.  They made me feel a lot better, and low and behold, that evening, there was Jason!  When we found Jason, our family was complete again.  Sure we stressed over losing all of our things, but in the end, they are just things.  All we really felt was complete and utter thankfulness that our family made it out whole and intact.  Nothing else mattered.

There were so many people that helped us out.  It was amazing.  All our neighbors were beyond wonderful.  Our landlords, could possibly be the best landlords and best people in the entire universe.  They had no concern for their apartment, only for our well being.  At least they never showed us their concern for their property.  I'm sure they had some.  That says volumes to me, when they had such a huge financial loss, they never once made us feel guilty.  They only showed us love.  The fire was our fault too.  It's hard to admit that, but it was.

Two of my best girlfriends from home were coming for a visit a day later and I had been cleaning the apartment all day and all night.  I had found out that one friend was allergic to cats and I have a cat.  I wanted to make the place completely spotless and everything washed so she would have a nice visit and not have to worry about her allergy.  I didn't finish until almost midnight and my husband had just gotten home from his night job.  It was St. Patricks Day for a few more minutes and we decided to split a beer with green food coloring.  We each took our half a beer, in our special crystal mugs, out onto the front patio and relaxed.  We absolutely loved where we lived. We had lived in a string of apartments after Hurricane Ivan that we were less than happy with, and we had finally found the perfect place for us.  It was right on the beach, the apartment was great, the rent was cheap, we loved the landlords.  It was a very happy time.  It was the perfect island lifestyle we were looking for. The patio was are favorite spot.  Almost every night, after Tharin was in bed, we would sit out on the patio and just take it all in. The quietness, the stars, the breeze, the salty air.  It was heaven. So, that night, when we went out with our crystal mugs full of green beer, we lit a mosquito candle because the mosquito's in Cayman can be brutal!  I'm sure you can figure out the rest..............we forgot to blow out the candle. Afterwards, the firemen told me, never ever use citronella candles.  Citronella candles have been known to cause many, many fires because they are extremely combustable.  They told me many people forget about candles and they usually just burn out.  Obviously, it's never a good thing to leave a candle burning, but a citronella candle is the worst kind of candle to forget about.  I still feel sickening guilt for leaving that candle burning, and I'm not even talking about the loss of the apartment.  Yes, I feel a lot of guilt for that part as well, it's a terrible thing to know that I burned someones apartment down, along with all of my own possessions, but what I'm talking about is my little boy.  That one stupid little mistake could have killed him, along with my husband and I.

As time passes I think about it less and less.  It's only natural to try and put something like that behind you, but I will never ever forget.  Never.  I mostly think about what could of happened.  It could have been so much worse.  I try to keep those kind of thoughts at bay, but they do creep in now and then.  Both my husband and I now have super noses as well.  We can smell a match being lit miles away, or it seems like it anyway.  I can smell the tiniest whiff of smoke. Do you smell that, I'll say??  No one ever can, except my husband, until we get closer to the source. I still get an immediate adrenaline rush every time I smell it too.  It's a panicky, horrible feeling where your chest tightens up and your breathing and heartbeat speeds up.

We pretty much lost everything in the fire.  The only things even remotely salvageable were in the back two bedrooms, everything else was burnt or beyond saving.  We saved a few things here and there, but first we had to clean the coating of thick oily soot off of it.  I cleaned as many of my books as I could and I spent hours cleaning, my then new, imac.  The back melted and it has a very distressed look now, but it still runs, sort of.  The disc drive didn't make it but everything else works like a charm.  GO APPLE!!!  My parents had recently been visiting and I had sent home all my photos, wedding dress, and other things I hold dear, so I got lucky there.  The only 'thing' I still think about losing is my Joyce Tenneson print, Miranda.  I saved to buy that, and it was very precious to me.  I could kick myself for not grabbing that and throwing it out the window.  Suppose my son took precedence over a photo!  The other thing we missed for a very long time was the apartment itself, or rather the feeling of happiness we felt while living there.  We missed it.  It felt like a death of a loved one in a way.  Each time we drove by the place, for quite awhile, I would tear up.  The few times that we've gone back, my son doesn't even want to get out of the car and a couple times he even started crying.  The building is gone now and I wonder how he can remember, he was so little, but he must.  I don't even think he knows exactly why he's upset.

We had so many people help us after the fire, I can't even possibly name everyone.  It was beyond comprehension.  The restaurant my husband worked at had a fundraiser for us, as well as some of his friends.  They raised thousands and thousands of dollars for us.  So many friends and strangers went to these fundraisers and gave generously.  People gave us bags of clothes, toys for my son, a crib, kitchen supplies, dvd players, toiletries.........anything and everything we needed.  The Pink Ladies gave us hundreds of dollars worth of vouchers for groceries.  My work let me take off all the time I needed to sort myself out (and it took awhile).  Some of our very best friends came over immediately and brought us some clothes, then helped us clean out the apartment and salvage what we could.  Another friend had a house that was not being used and he let us stay rent free for several months.  All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you. During such a difficult time, all of you helped us through it.  We will never be able to repay everyone that had a part or even thank everyone enough, but when it comes time when someone needs our help, we will be there.  We will try and payback what we've been given.

A couple days after the fire, I crawled up a ladder into the back bedroom window to see the place.  My husband and friends had already been up and had started throwing things out the window.  I borrowed a friends cameras and took some shots.........not great, but here they are anyway.  The pictures of the fire were taken by a friend and the others are pictures of the apartment before the fire.

So, a few life lessons to learn from this.....

1.Don't leave candles burning and especially citronella candles, but I'm sure most people never intentionally leave a candle burning anyway....

2.Have renters insurance  if you rent.  We didn't.

3.Smoke detectors, smoke detectors, smoke detectors.....although ours actually went off after we were already well aware of the fire.  If we hadn't woken, we would have heard the alarm.

4.Have a fire extinguisher and know how it works.  We had one, but I'll be honest, we didn't know exactly how to work it.  When you're panicked, it's not the best time to try and figure it out!  We didn't end up using ours, but in different circumstances I can imagine they would be pretty handy!

5.Things are just Things.

6.People can downright amaze you in wonderful ways when tragedy happens.

7.Hug and love your family.  You never know what might happen at 5am the day after St. Patricks Day!

-1 Comments

Tytia Habing

I am a self taught, natural light photographer, with sixteen years of shooting experience under my belt. Back in the day, I learned to shoot with film, developed it and printed my own photos in my darkroom. I've since moved to digital, but film holds a very dear spot in my heart that I just can't seem to shake. I was supposed to be a horticulturalist and landscape architect...at least that's what my degree's tell me. I followed that path for some time, along with a few other paths, but photography won my heart. Plants and beautiful mother nature is, and will always be, a great inspiration to me. If at all possible, I prefer to shoot outdoors and somehow incorporate nature into the scene. I'm originally from the Watson, Illinois area, but the majority of my adult life I spent living in the Cayman Islands and only moved home to Illinois with my husband and son a few short years ago. I grew up on a small working farm, with acres and acres of natural areas at my disposal. It gave me a great appreciation for the world around me. I roamed wherever I pleased, built forts in the woods, picked wildflowers in the pasture and caught craw-daddies in the crick. My son is taking over the jobs of fort building and craw-daddy hunting, but I'll never give up the picking of wildflowers.