About a month ago, my apartment building caught fire. It happened in the middle of the night, while my roommate and I were asleep—electrical wiring sparked in the hardware store beneath us, we fled into the cold, and watched from across the street as firefighters battled a 2-alarm blaze, broke through our windows and tore down our walls. Within a few hours, we were permanently smoked out of our home. Here's what to do if this happens to you.
DISCLAIMER: I can tell you what it's like to lose your apartment, your possessions, and your ability to sleep somewhere without a working smoke detector, but let me preface with this: GET RENTERS INSURANCE. It is much easier to come to terms with the loss of your home and most of your belongings when you have a financial safety net. As Lauren pointed out in a post in March (one I read and smugly Tweeted):
You are very smart and have great smelling hair, but you can't always predict when shit will hit the fan, when all hell will break loose, or when all hell-shit will break the fan. Renters insurance will be your saving grace in the event of a whole host of unfortunate events (skip down to "Why?" for more), and it covers aspects of your apartment/life you perhaps wouldn't suspect it does. If someone wounded in your home during your Bi-Annual Fire Juggling Convention decided to sue you, your legal expenses would be covered up to around $100,000. If your apartment spontaneously burns to the ground (you really need to find a new location for this convention), your living expenses—like a hotel room, and even restaurants—would be handled by your insurance as well.
Lauren Evans is a funny lady, but this is serious stuff. You can spare $10-$15 a month to secure your belongings. Do it now. I'll wait.
Now that you're best friends with a State Farm representative, we can get back to brass tacks. Here are some tips for surviving an apartment fire, provided you literally survive.
Get out fast, and don't regret the stuff you didn't take with you. When a neighbor banged on our door to wake us up—because, it appeared there wasn't a single smoke detector in my building that worked—my roommate and I tapped into our elementary school fire drill training and bolted with just our jackets, cell phones and keys. I spent the next few hours kicking myself for failing to grab my wallet, which would have been within easy reach. I was lucky enough that my stuff was still there when I got back to the apartment the next day, but even if it had been burnt to ash, it doesn't matter. Fire moves fast, smoke can knock you out, and a building can collapse. Having to get your driver's license replaced is better than a skin graft, or worse.
If you have a pet, of course, he or she should be a priority—it's a good idea to keep a leash or a pet carrier near you at all times in case of an emergency, and it's possible to rescue a cat in a pillowcase. You can also purchase fire safety stickers for your windows that alert firefighters that there's an animal inside—check the ASPCA's website for more tips to help you prepare.
A firefighter in my room. (Rebecca Fishbein/Gothamist)
Stay nearby for a few hours, if you can. My roommate and I posted up at a deli across the street, which was helpful for a couple of reasons. First, we were able to watch the destruction firsthand—I saw a firefighter break my window in, throw my bed over, and hack the shit out my walls, so I was mentally prepared for for what awaited me by the time I got back inside. We were also able to meet with fire inspectors and give them our information, and we talked to representatives from the Office of Emergency Management, who offered us rooms for the remainder of the night (we were able to stay with friends, but not everyone is that lucky). On top of all that, a few people from our building were also taking refuge in the deli, so we could exchange phone numbers and stay in contact re: getting back into the apartment to salvage our belongings in the morning.
Your phone is your best friend: Yes, one of my earlier points was to get out and go, but if you happen to sleep by your phone like the sick tech-addicted human I am, having that with you will come in handy. Even without a wallet, you can use your phone to call an Uber, access your bank account, or use Venmo—you can also call a friend to bring you a coat and/or emotional support, you can stay in touch with your neighbors and the FDNY to get more information about getting back inside your building, and you can obsessively check Twitter over the course of the night to keep tabs on whether or not the structure's still standing come morning. Tape your phone to the back of your hand every night just in case. Alternatively, these cute pajamas come with a cell phone pocket.
Expect to feel helpless, and remember that stuff is just stuff. The thing about watching firefighters battle a raging fire in your building is that there is nothing you can do but watch. Shock will protect you—my roommate and I were joking about our landlord raising our rent as we watched a firefighter kick in my window—but you have to accept, in the midst of all this, that you have to be okay with losing your home, at least temporarily, and that your things are in peril, and there's nothing you can do. For several hours, I believed my only possessions were my leather jacket, cell phone, and...retainer...and though thankfully that didn't end up being the case, I was prepared to accept that.
What a bedroom looks like after a firefighter hacks it to pieces. (Rebecca Fishbein/Gothamist)
If and when you're able to return to the apartment, get the things you love out fast (and bring a face mask). My roommate and I were shocked to find all of our stuff was still in our apartment when we were let back in the next day, and though we weren't able to save most of it (more on that later), we moved pretty quickly to salvage what we could. We grabbed wallets, passports, tax documents, and copies of our lease, along with jewelry and other valuables. I also pulled out my favorite shoes, expensive dry-cleanable clothing, my computer (which didn't work, in the end) and anything else I knew I wouldn't be able to part with in the future. It's also a good idea to bring a face mask with you, since the smoke is super harsh on your lungs and will leave you lightheaded for hours once you're out of the apartment.
Smoke damage is an unseen evil. We figured we were out of the woods when we saw that our apartment hadn't suffered any fire or water damage, but the toxic smoke from all the plastic in the burnt-up hardware store below us ruined pretty much everything. The clothing, shoes and jewelry I retrieved immediately following the fire aired out okay after a while. Cotton clothing should be washed (not dried!) about three to 5 times to get the smell out, and anything that can be dry-cleaned should be. I stuffed Bounce sheets in my most beloved shoes for a few weeks and left them by an open window.
Your furniture, however, is not so easy to clean. Anything soft has to be tossed—that includes mattresses, box springs, bedding, couches, and plush chairs. Don't keep any food items or toiletries. You might be able to save wooden furniture, but we found that the smell was so strong it wasn't even worth saving our crappy IKEA nightstands. Metal, thankfully, is pretty easy to clean, so you can probably save the odd folding bookshelf or coffee table. And worst of all, your books will likely be totaled—they're probably not worth salvaging, but you will feel pain every time you spot a copy of something you lost at The Strand.
Smoke damage (Rebecca Fishbein/Gothamist)
Document EVERYTHING in your apartment, and take lots of pictures. If you have insurance, someone will probably come take a visual inventory of your apartment and belongings. You should still write down Every. Goddamn. Thing you own, so you can include it in the claim. This is painful, painstaking and wholly unpleasant to do, but if you want to be able to recoup your losses, this is the best course of action. Make sure you take a lot of photographs of the damage, even if you don't have insurance. You may be able to take legal action against your landlord to make back some of what you lost.
You might be homeless for a while/forever: Don't listen to your landlord, who wants to get you back in the apartment and paying rent as soon as possible. Ours was convinced we'd be back in the apartment in "two or three days, maybe a week," but you should expect to be displaced for several months, if not permanently, if the damage is serious. My roommate and I were lucky enough to have strongholds in the city—she went to her boyfriend's, and I stayed with my parents—but you might have to move quickly to find a new place to live.
Friends will come in handy during this period. I crashed on no fewer than three couches and in two beds that were not my own before sucking it up and moving back home.
RIP, pillow. (Rebecca Fishbein/Gothamist)
PTSD is no joke. Everyone processes shocking events differently, and it's hard to know exactly how you'll handle something like being burned out of your home until it happens to you (and hopefully it doesn't!) I was able to run on adrenaline for about three weeks, but it hit me the second I started looking for a new place to live. Don't panic if you find yourself hysterically sobbing on Eastern Parkway because you are so homesick for North Brooklyn—this is normal, and it will pass. It may be helpful to speak with a therapist or attend group counseling, if you're having a particularly difficult time grappling with the loss.
Which brings me to my last point:
Stuff is just stuff. I said this earlier, but it's important to reiterate, because this sort of experience puts things in perspective, albeit only briefly. There are things you will lose that are irreplaceable, like your grandmother's artwork, photographs, journals, birthday cards, an Andy Warhol poster an old flame bought you back in college. There are things you will lose that, provided you have insurance (SERIOUSLY, GET INSURANCE) you will eventually be able to replace, but the act of rebuilding, of moving into a room you do not know with a bedspread that is unfamiliar to you, is unsettling, to say the least. One minute you are one person who lives at one address and owns 36 bottles of nail polish thanks to a weird drunk Duane Reade-shopping phase, the next you are a 26-year-old who (temporarily) shares a room with her adult sister and has two sweaters to her name. You can always get new stuff, but it is much harder to get a new you.
And for the love of God, check your smoke detectors.