It seems to have started with the innocent desire for more warmth during a cold morning.
But when an electric space heater in a Bronx apartment malfunctioned Sunday, incomprehensible tragedy followed.
A terrifying fire in the apartment building killed 17 people, including eight children, and left dozens of families at least temporarily homeless. When residents fled, the apartment’s hallway door remained open, allowing the smoke to spread; the door should’ve closed on its own.
It’s an awful tragedy, one we’ll be mourning and parsing for weeks and months to come.
We’ve done that before, including four years ago when another Bronx apartment fire killed 13 people after a young boy played with stove burners. Rules changed, yet here we are again.
Perhaps this is a chance to do more than mourn, more than parse. Perhaps as we hear the distant whir of a fire engine’s siren, we should recognize it could just as easily be us, and think about what could happen, and take seriously the possibility of a fire in our own homes.
Because it doesn’t just happen in large residential buildings, due to electric space heaters, compounded by apartment doors that don’t close. It can happen to anyone.
Last week, it happened to me.
We only discovered something was wrong when our wireless router stopped working. When I walked into our basement hallway toward our laundry room to check the router, I smelled — and saw — smoke, emanating from our dryer.
I screamed. I tried to peer into the laundry room, but the smoke was too thick, penetrating my eyes, my nose, my mouth.
My husband, 17-year-old daughter and I grabbed our 2-year-old pup, Sirius, and ran through the house and out the door. The smoke had begun to rise, making it hard to breathe. We live in an attached town house in Queens, with neighbors on either side, and they, too, headed outside. Within minutes, four firetrucks and more than a dozen firefighters arrived.
A fire had engulfed our dryer — cause still to be determined. But we were unharmed and incredibly lucky. And while there was lots of smoke damage — a stench still hangs over the laundry room a week later — a broken back door, and plenty of cleanup still to do, only the dryer was destroyed.
And, perhaps, the innocent feeling we’d had every time a fire truck roared by, that thought that it could never happen to us. That self-assurance that our stove, electrical outlet, dryer or, yes, space heater could never malfunction or spark or explode into smoke and flame.
For dozens of Bronx residents, that innocence is gone now, too. For everyone else, the horrific incident is a reminder to become aware and prepared, to always try to take care of ourselves and our neighbors. It’s also a reminder not to leave the dryer on when we leave the house, to clean vents and change the batteries in our smoke detectors. And, in apartment buildings, to make sure faulty fire alarms are fixed and doors close automatically, and that the heat works well enough to avoid old space heaters.
It’s far easier for me to say and do that than many a renter, reliant on landlords, management companies, and public policy.
But perhaps with the right attention, we can put out the next fire before it starts.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall’s opinions are her own.