Feuersbrunst

It happened! I got my first blog request! A friend wasn’t satisfied by my second last post’s cryptic allusions to the fire in our house. She wants the whole story.

Who am I to deny one of my 15 loyal readers? So here we go.

Two days before I went in for Chemo 3 – I was resting on the couch in our first-floor guest room. The husband told me he was going running and left the house. A while later I was shaken out of my reverie by a god-awful smell that I couldn’t identify. My first thought was that maybe hubby had come home and was working with some chemical like paint remover in his basement workroom. When I got to the stairwell, I realized the stink was coming from above, so my second thought was the sauna in the upstairs bathroom – which the husband usually turns on before he goes running.

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Sure enough. I went up and opened the bathroom door only to see two walls in flames from floor to ceiling. The sauna wall was burning. So were the wooden cabinet, the towels, the curtains, and a bunch of mostly plastic containers with shampoo, shower gels, sauna oils, toothpaste, creams, and cat food. I guess that explains why the smell first seemed more chemical than fire-like. I slammed the door shut.

What does a person do in this situation? I ran back downstairs, found my cell and dialed for emergency help, but unfortunately, Austria has three different numbers for medical emergencies, fire and police. Was it 122, 133, or 144? I tried to remember the little rhyme we used at school with the young kids and got it totally wrong. I’d love to hear a recording of my talk with the ambulance guy. I only clearly remember telling him “Yes It’s burning! It’s burning!”. Luckily the three emergency numbers are all connected and so the message was passed on.

While talking on the phone, I made my way to the basement to get the fire extinguisher. I can’t say whether distraction or panic made me walk right past it – within a few inches and with it practically being on display, all alone there in the corner of the hallway, where it has been for the past 20 years. Instead, I looked around our messy workroom until my thinking cleared up and I looked again in the hallway. There it was! Like magic!

On my way back upstairs, I wondered how to use a fire extinguisher, having never done it before. All I knew was that there was a pin to pull first – like on a hand grenade. I stopped at the first floor to lock Dog Four outside on the screen porch because the smell was so noxious, and then went upstairs. All the electricity was out up there so I had to feel for the the pin in the dark and pull it out. I opened the bathroom door for a second time and as a big cloud of black smoke washed over me, I grabbed the tube, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.

Whoosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh. In about five seconds, there were no more flames to be seen. I could hardly believe how well it worked! But I also realized then that I was in danger of smoke inhalation, so I closed the door, left the extinguisher standing there, opened up a bunch of windows and ran back downstairs to the porch. I took a bunch of deep breaths of fresh air. Then, very intelligently, I had a cigarette.

What now? The firemen hadn’t arrived and there were no approaching sirens to be heard. So I decided to go up one more time and check if the fire was really out, first wrapping a towel around my face. Opening the door for the third time, there were still no flames, but an even bigger black cloud flew past me. This time I heard water running and very briefly considered how to turn it off. But I knew I didn’t have time to go groping around for . . . that little wheely thing that shuts of the water supply. (Does that thing have a name? Neither the husband nor I can think of one in either German or English.)

I kept holding my breath and bolted again. According to my cell phone log, I then called the husband. Something I don’t remember at all, but he tells me his cell was ringing when he got back from his run and saw the black smoke coming out of the bathroom window. From that same log, I know that just eight minutes had passed since my emergency call and so maybe nine since my first seeing the flames. Nine minutes that now seem like a flash in the pan or a lifetime. I can’t decide which.

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The husband immediately went up to try and turn off the water and at the same time, the fire trucks started coming – four of them! one from each of the four surrounding villages – plus police and ambulance and emergency doctor and fire inspector and sundry other vehicles – at least ten in all. After four months of letting NO ONE in the house without a Covid test, about 20 firemen and women traipsed in, only to find a fire that was already out. They managed to shut off the water and monitored the site. They ripped out some of the wall and ceiling, checking the roof beams and for any ember nests. They took our statements and then two EMT’s took me to the parked ambulance to check for smoke inhalation. At first they figured I would have to go with them to the clinic for a few hours of observation, but I guess I convinced them I was feeling fine. Maybe it was when I happily exclaimed with excitement “Hey! I have never been inside an ambulance before! This is cool!”

So those are the events as best we can remember. Now to the weird stuff:

  • My husband told me I was awesome – twice! And in front of witnesses!
  • Just two days earlier, in a zoom conversation with two dear high school friends, I admitted that – after covid and cancer – yes, I did sometimes ask the cosmos what it had in store for me next. Now I know – it planned to set my house on fire.
  • I learned in the aftermath that the real damage doesn`t necessarily come from the fire, but from the smoke, water and soot that follow. The representative of a professional cleaning and repairing company estimated that we would have to renovate the entire second floor, along with repainting the bathroom, WC and guestroom on the first. They figured it would all come to about $40,000. Included in that estimate were new floors and roof windows. And a deep-cleaning team would come in to deal with the soot. Part of their work would be to take ALL of our clothes for special laundering as well as all of our books, games and DVDs which were packed up and carted off. We will get them all back next week, free of soot and smoke stink.
  • I had made myself a long list of house projects that would keep me busy during my first year of retirement. bty Over the five weeks after the fire, I watched a team of professionals – cleaners, floorers, window installers, plumber, carpenters, electrician and painters – come in and tick off my projects one after another at an amazing tempo. All we had to do was schlepp furniture and our masses of junk from one room to another to clear the way for them. As I followed their progress, I felt almost excited – I caught myself giggling on the inside about how great this all was. All I had really lost was some toiletries and twenty-year-old bath towels, and here I was getting practically a whole new house. And someone else was paying for it all! I joked to people that “if I had known this would happen, I would have torched the bathroom myself!” But then I started to think that I should stop saying that when . . .
  • . . . the household insurance took its sweet time in officially declaring their coverage of the repairs. We had gotten winks and nods and partial okays, but nothing in writing. Then rumors started that our case had been “randomly chosen” for investigation of insurance fraud. We joked that maybe our house was bugged and started having loud, badly delivered and canned conversations about how traumatic and scary the fire was, how lucky we were that it wasn’t worse, how weird it was that an appliance we used almost every day would suddenly go up in flames like that Who would have ever thought . . .?!
  • After 6 weeks of this, we finally got the written confirmation of coverage. And then, yesterday, these letters arrived from the Austrian Ministry of Justice, Criminal Division, addressed to the husband and me separately. It took me a nervous while to decipher the German legalese, but the upshot was this: they were informing us that the investigation of negligent arson . . . not by us two, but by “unknown perpetrators” was being closed. In other words, we weren’t personally charged with anything and those charges were being dropped anyway. A classic Austrian solution to a sticky situation: “No problem! Problem solved!” While reading this letter, I also added a new word to my German vocabulary when they wrote that there was no “Feuersbrunst”. I think they just meant a large fire, but the archaic meaning of “Brunst” has to do with the increased and audibly noticeable excitement in the animal kingdom that comes in the spring. So I first translated this term as “fire horniness” or maybe the less crude “fire giddiness”. It is somehow fitting because . . .
  • . . . my own reactions to this whole experience have been downright bizarre. It is not unusual for me to shut off all emotion during a critical event or moment of crisis, but normally, they come out slowly after the fact in fits and spurts. In this case . . . nope, nothing there. Most of my memories bring no feelings of trauma or panic, but something more like bemusement. I remember using the fire extinguisher as being sort of cool. Made me feel like Rambo. Instead of feeling loss, I keep smiling about all the refurbishing going on in my house. I love redecorating and I get to do just the fun parts, with all the yucky work and heavy lifting being done by someone else. I wonder at the sheer size of the silver lining of this minor, non-disastrous close call. And let’s face it: compared to cancer, this was all just a tiny bump in the road, not to mention an almost welcome distraction from the chemo.

So, in the end, if I had to describe my feelings about this entire event in one word, it would have to be “fire-giddy”.

And I’m very glad that the insurance company and Justice Ministry don’t know this.