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Old 09-11-2007, 08:15 PM
BallisticChicken BallisticChicken is offline
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Exclamation Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

We used to live and work in a loft/studio four bedroom apartment in downtown Madison. But in May the neighbors decided to celebrate being drunk by throwing fireworks into a grill on an adjoining rooftop at 3am. Why not? Obviously (at least to most of us) this started a rather large fire and spread quickly to our adjoining building.

We heard the fireworks go off and looked out the window, up the airshaft at the roof and saw a sheet of flame roll into the attic. I called 911 and we grabbed the cats and ran for it, stopping briefly to wake up the other neighbors across the hall. Since the fire was burning downward - no smoke alarms went off, in fact we couldn't even smell any smoke. We could definitely hear the rumbling growl of the fire as it burned above us. It took around 30 seconds from the 911 call until we were outside the building. The roof had 20ft flames shooting out of it and a roof compressor exploded above our apartment sending fire into the bedroom we had just been sleeping in.

Everyone in both buildings could have easily died. It was only by a miracle that everyone (including pets) got out alive. The fire department (which is very very good here) happened to have two stations already out on minor calls a matter of blocks away. So they were on site in under 3 minutes.

We did spend about 3 months homeless though until we found our current (less desirable but hey it has a roof) home. The fire department actually saved some of my art (its not saleable... smoky) and a few other things. But the building was also looted shortly after the fire - so we're not really sure what survived before we had a chance to secure it.

Some of the things that we learned from the whole mess, hopefully you wonít use any of them:

Lesson One: Have an evacuation plan and review it every time you move. We had one, so we were able to get the cats and wake up the other neighbors without risking anything. Thirty seconds is actually a really long time if you donít panic and know what youíre doing. It isnít really enough time to make a plan and when you arenít sure what to do panic can set in.

Lesson Two:
30 seconds is ALL you have. Tops. Take every alarm seriously. Fire moves really fast. Itís like fast moving boiling steam that rolls through, over and into anything in its path. The dull rumble of the fire is something that touches you in the spinal cord, it really activates a very primal terror. The smoke is just as bad, just a bare whiff of it (outside is where you could smell smoke) is like someone reaching into your chest and squeezing your lungs shut. One breath full of smoke will do you in. It is the most foul, toxic, thing I have ever experienced. A Junior high school boys locker-room is the sweetest perfume by comparison. Do anything you have to, in order to avoid breathing the smoke. Definitely keep low to the ground.

Lesson Three: Save yourself. We had time to grab everyone because the cats were at the door (they arenít stupid). If you have smoke in the area or you donít know where the fire is, leave via the fastest method so you can direct firefighters to everyone else. The neighbors (the innocent ones who didnít start the fire) had to leave their cats in the building. The fire department rescued them. If they had stayed in the building to find them, the smoke or collapsing ceiling, or fire would have probably caught them.

Lesson Four: Looters. Our burnt out apartment was looted before we could get in to recover things. However, the fire dept will usually let you up for a brief period right after itís extinguished if the structure is deemed safe. During that time we recovered some sentimental stuff that had survived somehow. I also nabbed a semi-singed laptop computer just in case the personal info on it survived (it hadnít). Stay on the site until they let you back in if at all possible. Police will try to secure it, but they wonít actually stay there. Even if you have to sleep in your car until the next day, itís worth it to make sure nothing that survived gets stolen. When you get into your house/apartment take any computer hard drives and anything else with personal information as well as anything else valuable.

Lesson Five: Insurance. Several people had property insurance and we donít. Weíre stuck potentially suing the insurance company representing the drunk neighbors. Its going to take a while, but I think weíll get our full 30k. The people who had property insurance are stuck with $4,000 for their entire apartment and they canít sue anyone because of their policy agreement. The policy terms they ended up with were not the ones they thought they were paying for. Make sure you have a full replacement policy (not actual cash value Ė otherwise youíll get $4,000 for all of your belongings) and take pictures of EVERYTHING you own. Seriously. Make sure your policy covers water damage. Fire fighters use a lot of water that your insurance adjuster will probably try to squirm out of covering. Also write down when you bought it and for how much and put it in a bank somewhere. Or store it in gmail or another online e-mail program. Insurance companies, despite their touchy feely ads, are universally evil. Have a lawyer look over any policy you have before signing it (this will pay off BIG if something happens). Whatever you do, do not trust what your insurance agent says without it being in plain English. Even then be careful. Insurance agents are in the same ďhonestyĒ class as military recruiters, act accordingly.

Lesson Six: Post Fire recovery is overwhelming Ė use all the resources you can. We spent $3,000 right away on basic essentials and some supplies to try to reclaim stuff from the fire. The Red Cross will help you with a fair amount of immediate basic needs, but youíll spend about three hours on paperwork (which is kinda hard if your house is still burning). If you donít stay in a hotel at the beginning of your recovery period the Red Cross will also help you pay a security deposit on a new apartment (up to a point obviously, no penthouses etc). Also make use of any food pantries in your area (United Way has the best stuff around here).

Those are the main things we took from the mess. Weíre back up and running but itís taken about four months of some very touchy going. You really find out who your friends are when something like this happens, and the answer may surprise you. We consider ourselves lucky to have gotten through it without any injuries. Hopefully you wonít have to use anything in this post.
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Old 09-11-2007, 08:38 PM
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

I learned many similar lessons when Hurricane Charley decided our home no longer needed its roof in 2004. Insurance was a monster. Red cross wasn't there for us other than to bring a meal by once every few days, I think they just were too overwhelmed.

Yes you certainly learn who your friends are...neighbor who brings their pool cover over to help tarp your no longer there roof...friend. Close relative that promises to bring you badly needed ice and food but never shows...not so friendly.
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Old 09-12-2007, 01:58 AM
BallisticChicken BallisticChicken is offline
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

Quote:
Originally Posted by beautifulfreak
Yes you certainly learn who your friends are...neighbor who brings their pool cover over to help tarp your no longer there roof...friend. Close relative that promises to bring you badly needed ice and food but never shows...not so friendly.

Wow. Sorry to hear about your house. Yeah, we were really shocked at how the people we thought would be there, for the most part, didn't show up. We really only needed somone to listen to us process the event and provide a floor to crash on for three days.

Total strangers ended up being far more giving than even family. A lot of people wanted to give us "things" at a time when we really just needed normal human contact to normalize the whole experience. I have that sheet of flame "burned" into my mind as it is and so we really weren't interested in objects or stuff. As full-time artists you probably arn't real materially oriented anyway but near-death experiences *really* shift your values.

The exception was two local art supply stores that just *gave* us over $300 in supplies to start making art ASAP. They didn't make a big deal about it, they didn't do it for public consumption, they just said that we couldn't let too much time go by without doing any artwork and shoved a pile of supplies at us. What meant a lot to us, was the thought behind the gift. The concern that not doing our work would cause us distress (not an unreasonable concern) was genuine and obviously deep. That really helped us a great deal.

Even the firefighters treating our belongings with care while they chainsawed into a wall. We had a small fern that they carefully took down and saved before ripping the ceiling down. They removed books from shelves and neatly stacked them before tossing the bookcase aside and knocking the wall out. They carefully cut down the art in the gallery and stacked it to one side before taking the walls and ceiling out in our gallery area. All of this while two buildings are in flames. That really really meant a lot to us.
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Old 09-12-2007, 11:41 AM
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

My condolences for your loss, and thanks for these reminders.
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Old 09-12-2007, 01:25 PM
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

Hi, sorry to hear about your recent loss. I wanted to offer you some words of encouragement. I had a fire in my studio and my paintings suffered severe smoke damage. If you carefully clean the soot off and air them out for a while, you might be able to save and eventually sell them. It depends on the extent of the damage, but all might not be lost. It's worth a try.
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Old 09-12-2007, 01:40 PM
BallisticChicken BallisticChicken is offline
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

Quote:
Originally Posted by jolie
Hi, sorry to hear about your recent loss. I wanted to offer you some words of encouragement. I had a fire in my studio and my paintings suffered severe smoke damage. If you carefully clean the soot off and air them out for a while, you might be able to save and eventually sell them. It depends on the extent of the damage, but all might not be lost. It's worth a try.

Thanks for the info! Most of them were large works on hardboard. The fire dept cut them down and moved them away from a lot of the action but the roof was pulled/burned so they got hit with direct water from the ladder trucks who were spraying the fire from above. Then it was about three days before we could get back inside. As you might imagine, warping and mold was a serious issue (it also rained during that time). I got some conservation/restoration advice from the museam here and most of them were unsalvagable. A handful could be restored and are doing fine but most were lost. It was especially bad because we were set up for an open studio event so a years worth of work was hung in an area that got literally tons of water. Some of them also had heat damage to the paint film, acrylic apparently can melt. Who knew? But mostly it was the water.
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Old 09-12-2007, 02:30 PM
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

I'm sure you are a different person with new perspective and strength after coming through something like this. Thank you for your post.
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Old 09-12-2007, 05:06 PM
BallisticChicken BallisticChicken is offline
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Finch
I'm sure you are a different person with new perspective and strength after coming through something like this. Thank you for your post.

Thanks for your kind words. Although it reminded me of a common reaction to disaster survivors- and I know you don't mean it this way; it just remided me of it, so I'm not criticising you Finch- But the thing with any disaster or serious illness or tradgedy is that it doesn't really make you stronger. If you get help from other people and you survive the long dicey period after it, then you can eventually draw some experience and strength from it. But so many people don't get through that, they put on a brave face but turn to drinking or drugs or just become very dead inside.

Prior to the fire, I had (well *still have*) very serious PTSD. So i'm not a stranger to life throwing fast balls. And you can sort of put on a brave face for people - you see that on shows like Oprah - but its mostly just a show. There is a societal expectation, that tradgedy, combat, cancer can be turned into a growth experience. That you have the chance to forge a really strong personality through hardship. And you can - eventually. But its very pricey growth. The only time that happens is if the person involved gets a lot of help from others. And a large amount of time passes. In the meantime, you feel like a fraud because people are saying how strong you are and well you're getting on, but you're really not. Our society, because of TV especially, tends to expect people to move on and deal with things before they're even close to ready. If you see soldiers on TV and in movies who go to war and win and come home and marry the girl they've been longing for and llive a happy normal life - if you see that enough, you start believing it. And spouses think, "hey, my partner is back and safe and I'm here and everything is fine. Why doesn't he/she deal with this stuff." And they feel guilty for feeling that way, and end up getting blindsided by the harsh reality of it all.

Again that's not what Finch meant or intended, but I think its good to have that sort of out there. If you know somone who has been through something really bad the best thing you can do is just to hang around without any kind of expectation - don't do anything unusual unless they ask. They might talk about it or not, but no gift card or pile of stuff can ever take the place of your presense.

On that note, if anyone has (or if you know someone who has) PTSD - doctors have just discovered that a cheap, safe, widely available blood pressure drug cuts PTSD symptoms by up to 90%. Specifically, dreams, flashbacks and mood issues are all but eliminated. It has nearly zero side-effects. PM me if you want the name and I can also send you some medical articles to give a doctor so they know its for real. It works with almost everyone, but most doctors don't know about using it that way yet. Especially if you are a spouse of a soldier, because this is a blood pressure drug it doesn't have the stigma associated with "mental health" drugs - so no-one in their unit needs to know. It will give you a good chunk of your partner back to you. And then you can create more art (there: its buisness related).
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Old 09-13-2007, 03:21 AM
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

Dave,

I was saddened to read about your tragic loss. You are absolutely right; getting out with your lives and cats was the important thing. It's incredibly kind of you to take the time to write such a moving account and to give such straightforward advice in the wake of so much trauma and aggravation. All best wishes for putting the pieces back together and for finding some silver lining from the process.
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Old 09-14-2007, 01:58 PM
BallisticChicken BallisticChicken is offline
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

Thank you all for your kind words. The two, most important things, I'd like everyone to get from our experiences are: 1. treat every fire alarm you hear as the real thing - it probably isn't but if it is, but the time you find out it's the real deal you're in deep trouble. And 2. the bravest thing you can do is evacuate immediatly. Despite your temptation to go back in for people or animals you need to be outside in order to tell rescuers where to go. That takes far more courage and bravery than instictivly diving back into a burning structure without any means to survive it.

And one breath of smoke is all it takes to knock you out. Teach you're children what to do, in a fire and to stay put in their room if they can't get out. But don't go back in for them. The first thing the firefighter's ask is if there is anyone else in the building and its the first thing they check on. If you're not outside to tell them, they have to depend on luck (or very expensive IR cameras if you have a well-funded dept).

Oh yeah, this won't surprise anyone - but it's a sign of the times: I recently found a video on You-tube of our building on fire. Its 16 seconds of video right as the fire dept was arriving and before they even had hoses out... Seriously, is there ANYTHING that doesn't end up on that site?

Last edited by BallisticChicken : 09-14-2007 at 02:01 PM.
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Old 09-14-2007, 03:28 PM
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Re: Learning from Disaster: Post Fire Lessons.

Yes, thank you from me too, for taking the time to post this and warn others. I'm sorry for what you are going through. Life doesn't make sense.
Thank you!

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