I have always said with absolute certainty that the first thing I would grab in a fire is my photos. As it turns out, I was wrong.
You think you know how you’ll react. You think you know what it will feel like if the unimaginable happens. You think you know the steps you’ll take and the order you’ll take them in. It doesn’t always go according to plan though.
When the unthinkable does actually happen, the only thing that matters is getting everyone out.
Last Sunday, the first weekend of February half term, started off in a fairly typical way for us: a slow morning at home followed by a walk in the almost-Spring sunshine at our local National Trust property in search of snowdrops.
Upon returning home at 5pm I started cooking dinner for the girls. I placed some sausages under the grill then popped some baked beans and peas in a couple of pans to gently heat through on the hob. But something felt different. Something wasn’t right. There was a smell that wasn’t the usual ‘cooking sausages’ smell. A small-but-persistent hard ball of fear lodged itself without warning in the very pit of my stomach. I crouched down in front of the oven to have a better look and could see several flames licking the grill element, heading vertically upwards.
I calmly turned everything off and walked out of the kitchen to fetch my husband, shutting the kitchen door behind me. He works as a pub manager and has dealt with incidents like this several times – I was mostly confident that he would know what to do to put it out, although there was a tiny seed of doubt there too. Something felt very, very wrong. Normally I’d shout up the stairs to him but this time something made me quietly ask him to come downstairs with me instead. Instincts told me not to do anything that might unnecessarily worry the girls.
As we stepped into the kitchen together I could immediately see that it had got worse. This wasn’t just a bit of fat that had squirted out of the sausages and caught alight. The flames were up inside the top of the oven, above the grill element, behind the digital clock/timer. There was literally no way of getting to them. We couldn’t use water to put it out – that’s the last thing you should do with an electrical fire and these flames were already tangled amongst the wires. They grew bigger and smoke started to fill the kitchen.
Hearing my husband say that there was nothing he could do was the moment I knew it was really serious. He always knows what to do in an emergency. He told me that we needed to get the girls out of the house and that I needed to call 999 straight away. By this point the smoke alarms on all three floors of our house has started screeching their high-pitched warnings. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. It felt like it was getting louder and louder, more and more insistent, the noise filling my head and matching the rapidly increasing pace of my heartbeat until it became completely unbearable.
I left my husband in the kitchen opening the back door and windows in order to let out as much of the smoke as possible; seized my laptop, camera and our phones off of the kitchen table as I went past; and dumped them by the front door. Apparently, those are the things I grab first in a fire. I ran upstairs to get the girls who had appeared on the landing, white-faced and panicky, their hands over their ears and frightened questions in their fear-filled eyes. We tumbled down the stairs together, snatching up shoes and coats along the way, before I pushed them out the front door and over to the other side of the road, where I called the fire brigade. Adrenaline pumping and rising chaos and panic in the background, I tried to simultaneously calm the girls down whilst explaining to the operator what was wrong and giving our address. By this point Lola was absolutely hysterical – screaming, crying and shaking uncontrollably. She is utterly terrified of anything fire related, including sparklers and fireworks, so this was far beyond anything she could cope with.
All of this took maybe two minutes in total, though it felt much longer. My husband was still inside. I remembered the cats and (stupidly) went back into the house to find them. They knew something was wrong and had raced upstairs to hide under our bed. I managed to get one of them (Luna) but the other (Felix) had disappeared. By this point Neil had come out of the kitchen and shut the door behind him – I could see the glow under the door. It seemed like I could see the smoke starting to curl around the edges, hear the crackle of the flames and feel the heat. I went back upstairs in one last panicked attempt to find Felix, calling him over and over, and then heard my husband shouting my name. He never, ever uses my full name and I could hear the desperation and urgency in his voice – I knew he was really serious and that I had to get out. Heart thumping, I abandoned Felix, raced down the stairs and out of the front door.
We huddled together on the opposite side of the road. Ella was trying to be brave and hold her fear in check, her arms around a distraught Lola, hugging her and telling her that it was all going to be ok. Mimi stood, totally unmoving, desperately worried about Felix who was still inside, tears streaming down her face. I gathered them all in as close to me as I could get them, Ella broke down too and they all sobbed and shook with the adrenaline, clutching each other, needing each other. Lola suddenly remembered her Teddy who was still in her bedroom, wanting to know if he was going to be ok, more tears squeezing out of her eyes and her teeth chattering furiously. Her legs became unable to hold her any longer and she sat down abruptly, the rest of us sinking down alongside her to the pavement.
Concerned neighbours came over with blankets to wrap around the girls to try and ward off the symptoms of shock they were already experiencing. They stayed with us, reassuring us and talking to us to try and keep us calm so the panic didn’t get overwhelming. I knew that I had to be resilient and strong, that I couldn’t let the girls see me fall apart. The fire engine arrived and my husband quickly told them everything they needed to know before disappearing around the back of the house (where the kitchen is situated) with half of the team so they could assess what the situation was before entering the house. The other half of the firefighting team started preparing the equipment they’d need – breathing apparatus, giant hose reels, the lot.
Sitting there on the pavement, the girls shivering and shaking in my arms, I had a moment of complete and utter clarity. I honestly believed that the entire house was going to go up in flames. I prepared myself for it, getting ready to watch it happen. Surrendered myself to it. Accepted it. It didn’t matter. None of the stuff inside the house mattered. I was willing to let it all go because I had everything I needed right there with me – my husband and our girls. I’ve thought about that a lot in these days following the fire. This event has certainly put an awful lot of things into perspective.
I have no idea how long it took to actually extinguish the fire. Probably minutes, although it felt like hours. Enormous fans were taken inside to help blow the smoke out, which had apparently completely filled the kitchen. I recognised one of the firefighters as a Dad from the girls’ primary school. When the girls go back to school on Monday it’s going to take everything I have not to go up to him and give him an enormous hug in the playground for saving our house. I will forever be grateful to these incredible humans who (quite literally) bravely walk into burning buildings not knowing what they’re going to find, trusting that their extensive training will kick in and that they’ll be able to do what they need to do to deal with the situation.
Our next door neighbours invited us into their house once we knew the fire was definitely out and we sat on the sofa together in a daze, whilst next door at our house the firefighters worked to finish off the job and perform whatever checks they needed to do before we would be permitted to re-enter the house. I tried to make conversation but truthfully my mind was a curious mixture of swirling thoughts and utter blankness. Eventually Neil appeared with a wide-eyed Felix, who was perfectly safe and completely unharmed thank goodness. More tears from the girls, this time of relief and joy rather than terror.
We were eventually allowed home two hours after the whole thing started after a fire safety chat from one of the firefighters who assured us that we had done everything that we could do, and had done it correctly. There was nothing more we could have done to stop it from happening. We learned that the fire had been contained to the kitchen and it hadn’t actually spread too far, staying mostly around the oven area. He warned us that the kitchen was a bit of a mess.
Walking back into our house through the front door, tentatively stepping over the threshold of somewhere that hasn’t really felt like home for a while now, the first thing that hit me was the smell. A metallic, acrid smell that burned the back of our throats and made our eyes water. It still hasn’t gone now, almost a week later – it’s permeated the entire house and we take it with us wherever we go – it’s in our clothes and our hair and no matter how many times it all gets washed and cleaned, the smell remains. Large, dirty footprints led along the hallway to the kitchen. I carefully pushed the door open, trying to mentally prepare myself for what we might see. In the centre of the floor was an unrecognisable charred hunk of metal that used to be my oven. The worksurface above where the oven used to reside was blackened and melted. A layer of soot and flakes of ash covered every surface, including inside the cupboards. There were puddles of filthy liquid streaking the floor from whatever the firefighters used to extinguish the blaze. More frantic footprints. The once white walls and ceiling were covered in a thick layer of black residue. The smoke damage was extensive.
I have been cleaning for days. Scrubbing the floor, the cupboards, and every single piece of cutlery, crockery, glassware and kitchen equipment we own. Thankfully we’ve not needed to throw very many things away at all although I have chosen to get rid of quite a lot of stuff, taking the opportunity to purge items we haven’t used for years and really don’t need.
We have no oven and the hob isn’t safe to use so we currently can’t cook properly. We’re relying on a mixture of salads/cold buffet-type meals/sandwiches plus food we can cook in the microwave: jacket potatoes; ready meals; soup. And we’re also accepting the continuing incredible kindness of neighbours and friends who are letting us use their ovens.
The smell of burning is ever-present, despite open windows and air fresheners. It’s going to be next week at the earliest before the kitchen gets professionally cleaned and even longer before we know how much of it will be written off and replaced and how much of it we are going to have to find ourselves. It’s going to be several weeks before we return to anything even close to resembling normality.
I’ve been on the phone seemingly every five minutes to the insurance company, the cleaning and restoration team, an electrician, the loss adjustor. Pretty much all of our half term plans were abandoned, cancelled or put on hold. We did manage to sneak in a family trip to the cinema one afternoon to see Lego Movie 2 which was a welcome light relief from the stress at the house (and a timely reminder that everything, in fact, is not always awesome but that there is always a way of getting things back to being awesome if you work together as a team). Needing to escape the smell of smoke, I also took the girls to Birches Valley for some fresh air and the chance to play unplugged in the woods for a couple of hours.
Time will tell how much all of this impacts mentally on the girls (and us I guess). It was a shocking thing to happen. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘trauma’ or ‘traumatic’ as they have such long-lasting connotations and I know the girls are going to take their cues from Neil and I in terms of how they handle it. If we’re ok, they’ll be ok. So far they seem to be alright – the only thing I’ve noticed is that Lola got a bit panicky when she heard a truck reversing in the nearby factory as she thought the beeps she could hear were the smoke alarms going off again. I’ve had a couple of awful nightmares but I think that’s just my brain trying to process it all – it’s been a lot to take in. The husband and I are doing our very best to be matter-of-fact about it all, to be stoic and positive as far as we can. We keep reinforcing that the most important thing is that we are all safe and no-one got hurt. After all, possessions can be replaced. People can’t.
At the same time I’m being honest about how I feel about things if they ask me. I’m trying to show them that it’s ok to feel upset or sad or scared or worried about things and that it’s a normal response to a situation like the one we’ve just been through. It’s only temporary, those feelings won’t last forever, and we can still look for the good in every day even if stuff feels a bit tricky for a while. I think that’s healthy: teaching them to talk about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking; validating their emotions and letting them know that all of their feelings are ok even if they don’t understand them yet; and helping them figure out what they can do to help themselves feel better about things.
Events like this are completely beyond our control. I firmly believe that it’s not the things that happen to us that matter – it’s what we make of them and the meanings we choose to give to them that count. Attitude (and gratitude) is everything. Yes, this was a horrible thing to happen but I am not going to let it become a defining part of my story like I once would have done. It may take up a page or two, but it’s not going to fill the whole book (or even a whole chapter).
I am so very thankful that we all got out safely, that no one was hurt, and that the damage was mostly limited. I’m thankful that our neighbours stayed safe and that their homes weren’t affected. I’m grateful for all of the offers of help we’ve had from the little community we live in – neighbours and friends offering to let us use their kitchens and borrow slow cookers, even to cook us meals to put in the freezer that we can heat up. Messages of concern and support from those further away. I’m hopeful that one day we’ll be able to look back on this merely as something that happened, something that was scary at the time but ultimately was an event on which we worked together to overcome, and something that we moved on from in a positive way.
As I said earlier I feel like it’s put a lot of things into perspective for me. I’ve been reminded of my intention for 2019, my year of more and less. More of the things that matter and less of the things that don’t. This fire has shown me exactly what doesn’t matter and precisely what does. And that is going to be my focus even more over these next few weeks as we put our life back in order. And I’m going to do my utmost to make it my priority over the rest of the year as a whole. There’s a lesson in everything that happens. I’ve learned mine for sure.