In the Suburbs: Tears of grief flow when fires claim children
Published 7:40 am, Sunday, March 29, 2015
After seven decades, the tears I shed over tragic, needless loss come more easily. That's how it was last weekend when I learned about the deaths of seven siblings, ages of 5 to 16, in a fire in Brooklyn, N.Y.
I could hardly bear to watch the news segments, knowing that a malfunctioning hot plate that warmed food while the family observed the Jewish sabbath was the probable cause of the blaze.
As I spoke with my wife about the fire, I choked on the words and asked, "How does a mother who believes she might have saved one or all of them manage the loss of children who had barely lived?"
And we thought of the father, called back from a conference with news that only his wife and 14-year-old daughter survived.
Even more gut-wrenching was the report of a neighbor who allegedly heard a scream after midnight, "Mommy, mommy, help me!"
Firefighters arrived at the scene within four minutes of a 911 call, but the fast-moving blaze already had traveled to the second floor when the call was made, and all except the mother and 14-year-old daughter were trapped. This tragedy will remain etched in my mind.
Sadly, it was not the only recent fire that killed children. Just a month ago in Orange, N.J., a 6-year-old girl and her 1-year-old brother died in a four-alarm blaze that lit up a whole block. One sibling jumped out of the third-floor window and was caught by neighbors. The 6-year-old was able to push another sibling out of a third floor window, and neighbors caught the boy. But the 6-year-old couldn't save herself or her infant brother.
In Bridgeport just a couple of weeks ago, a mom and her daughter escaped a blaze not far from St. Vincent's Hospital by jumping from a porch. That fire was one of several in the last couple of months where tragedies were averted.
The National Fire Protection Association reports that "stove tops, ovens and other cooking equipment are the leading causes of residential fires, but fires caused by smoking cause the most deaths."
I remember Christmas 2012, when a fast-moving house fire in Stamford snuffed out the lives of three little girls and their grandparents, leaving a mother and father with the burden of asking why and how? That fire was eventually traced to smoldering ashes in a mud room.
As I've tried to process these tragedies, although not directly impacted, I've certainly identified as a parent. Over the years, during our six moves, we've lived in older homes and newer ones. Thankfully, with tighter fire regulations, smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, we've been able to sleep more comfortably, especially in the five houses that have been two stories with attics.
I guess my wife and I have been more complacent than we thought about the houses being safe from fire. And, thankfully, our children have never had to know the fear of escaping from a fire.
But I've looked out of our second-floor windows wistfully after the kids had gone to bed and distantly wondered what it would be like to have to jump in a fire. Would we all be brave enough to jump? What about our pets?
I remembered my mom telling me about the tragic death of a cousin's college-age daughter in her college dorm when it caught fire. The only price she might have paid for a jump from her second-floor room to the ground would have been a broken leg. The young woman was 19 and in great shape. Instead of jumping, she panicked and froze and died of smoke inhalation.
And as much as I wondered why she didn't risk the jump, I wondered how I would have reacted. It's easy to say what we should do.
Our last home was a ranch and we rarely worried about a fire. But just once in the very early days of living in that house, a short circuit in a garage refrigerator nearly caused the house to catch fire. A small pipe that served as a conductor broke and flames leaped from the refrigerator.
I know I will always become choked up when I think about last week's Brooklyn fire and others that killed children. But my heart will ache for the mothers and fathers who are left empty and probably thinking, "If only I'd ..."
Steven Gaynes' "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.