Sometimes it takes a moment of crisis to realize what matters. Sometimes it takes a really difficult question to force you to think about what you value in life. Questions like: “Would you rather lose an arm or a leg?” “What would you do if you had 24 hours to live?” or “What would you grab if your house was on fire?”
A few weeks ago, I had to answer that last question. Something in my apartment building was on fire and I had 3.4 seconds to decide what was important to me and what I would grab.
Seeing smoke: my reaction and escape
Before I tell you exactly what happened, let me just say that no one was hurt. I’m typing this from the comfort and safety of my damage-free apartment. But it was a scary moment, and for a second, I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to make it out of the building on my own.
It was around 7:30 at night and I was by myself in the apartment. Alright, technically I wasn’t entirely alone; I share an apartment with my boyfriend and his cat. He was out for the evening, but the cat was sitting next to my feet, waiting to be fed.
As I was washing the dishes, I heard the fire alarm go off in the apartment next door. If you live in an apartment building, you know how frequently this happens and it’s certainly no reason to panic. I assumed she’d just burned a batch of cookies.
But then the sound of the alarm split in two. A second alarm started going off, slightly off-sync from the first. An annoying, high-pitched beeping was coming from the hallway now, too.
Uh… not good.
Curious to see what was happening, I walked to the front door and peered out the peephole. I’m not sure what I expected to see; I’d never actually looked out of my peephole before. All I could see was a blurry view of my apartment hallway.
I went back to washing dishes, thinking it was just a terribly bad batch of burned cookies. But even after a few minutes, the alarms kept sounding. This time I went back to my front door and opened it a crack.
I instantly realized what had blurred my line of sight from the peephole just minutes ago: the hallway was filled with smoke pouring out of the apartment next door.
I slammed the door. I felt strangely calm. Time slowed down and a logical voice started speaking in my head, “There seems to be a big fire,” my brain reasoned. “And you should probably leave as quickly as possible.”
“It’s time to go.”
From what I could tell, the smoke was blocking my exit to the stairs. I didn’t know if the fire was in the stairwell and or if my immediate means of escape was blocked off. I only had seconds to act, to grab what I needed and to get the hell out of there.
In a split second, I had decided what mattered. And I instantly regretted it.
The first thing I did was run into the kitchen, grab a dish towel and soak it in water. At some point in elementary school I had been taught that a wet cloth held over your nose and mouth can prevent smoke inhalation (thanks, 3rd grade fire safety lessons!). After grabbing the cloth, I knew I had about three more seconds to get what I needed and leave. I saw my bag from work on the floor; it still had my wallet, laptop, keys and water bottle inside. I figured it was the best collection of things to take with me.
As I was grabbing my bag, I noticed the cat sitting next to me. She looked up at me. I hesitated.
And then I turned and ran out the door.
Yes, I left the cat.
In that split second, I had decided to leave behind my furry roommate. It’s not because I don’t love the cat, but in that split second, I thought it would put me in jeopardy of escaping. The extra time it would take to put her in the carrier and try to run down the stairs would mean I had less time to run through the smoke and save myself.
I know, I know. I am a heartless human being. And a month ago, I would’ve said hands-down that I would’ve grabbed the cat first – that is until I was faced with a choice in a real emergency.
Besides cruelly leaving behind our apartment pet, I also failed to grab a few very important items I later regretted leaving behind: a box of hand-written cards and letters that I could never replace, my passport and a few pieces of art that I had painted over the years. Those would have been gone forever and difficult (if not impossible) to replace.
And when I look back at what I did grab – a laptop, a wallet, cell phone and keys – I regret the choices I made in that moment of panic.
What would you grab if your house was on fire?
Turns out, my neighbors stove had caught fire and the fire was already put out by the time I was dashing out the door. I was in no danger of losing my life (or my apartment, belongings and cat). I hope I never have to make that choice of what to leave behind again, but I can’t help now but think of what I would do differently – and how I’ll prepare for another disaster.
1. Keep irreplaceable items in a fire-proof lock box and digitize what’s important
I would have been devastated to lose the hand-written cards and letters I’ve received over the years. Right now, I keep those in a shoebox. A very flammable shoebox. My artwork would’ve been lost forever (I’m not going to keep that in a fire-proof box, and I’m certainly not carrying a large frame out of a burning building. I need to keep a high-quality digital image of my artwork in case something happened.
2. Grab the essentials, but only if you have time
I felt very luck that my bag was already packed with my “essentials.” But I also realized that if I only had seconds to escape, I should’ve just leaved all of that behind. While it’s really helpful to have your credit cards and cell phone on hand after you escape, the time you take to gather your belongs could mean the difference between life and death.
3. A plan (and a good cat carrier) is critical
Yes, if I had to do things differently I would save the cat. But one of the main reasons I hesitated is that she has a very cumbersome cat carrier that would’ve taken a long time to get her inside of. Whether or not you have pets, make sure you have a plan about what you’re bringing, where you’re going and what you’re leaving behind. And it might be worth investing in an easy-to-use fabric cat carrier.
If you were in the same situation, what are the 3 things you would grab in a fire? Let me know in the comments below!
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