The Fire Down Below

IMG_0813 78 Washington Place today

Around 4 AM one August night in 1981, I awoke from a womb-like slumber. Automatically I got up to urinate. When I opened the door and stepped toward the bathroom, it seemed like I was still asleep, dreaming. A choking mist filled the hallway. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. As I stumbled back into my room, the acrid smell in my nostrils registered in my brain.


Struggling to remain calm, I sat down on my bed, pulled off my gym shorts and put on the jeans I’d worn earlier. As I tied my sneakers, the unlocked door burst open and a fireman appeared. He grabbed me by the arm and shoved me toward the door. Wait.

“Are you alone here?”


He glanced over at the back window. No fire escape.

“Is there anybody else on this floor?”

“Two other people, no the girl’s not here. Guy across the hall.”

“OK we got him. All right I’m taking you downstairs.”

I fumbled for my wallet, keys. What else should I bring?


Next thing I knew we were moving down the stairs, one of the firefighter’s arms wrapped around my shoulders, an axe in his other hand. I started to cough like I had emphysema.

“Time to take a break. Get you some fresh air.”

We stepped off the landing onto the second floor. He kicked open an apartment door. I heard the crash and tinkle of a window being broken and then my head was hanging out in the night air. I was still gulping as he yanked me back in and onto the stairway.

“We’re almost done. You’re doing great.”

“Shit! You’re the one who’s doing great.”

“Save your breath.”

When we finally reached the front door, I nearly fainted. In my swirling vision I could make out a fire engine parked in the street, hoses and water everywhere, flashing lights distorting the faces of Jeff, Frank and my other neighbors as they huddled on the sidewalk. The fireman who rescued me went back to the building while another threw a blanket over my shoulders and pointed me toward a smaller vehicle down the block. Gradually, my head was clearing.

“You’ll be OK but we’re obligated to take you to the emergency room. Observation. Smoke inhalation. Don’t worry.”

With that, he lit a cigarette. I’ve never felt so relieved.

At St Vincent’s, I spent about three hours sitting around and five minutes being examined by a harassed doctor who didn’t seem to think there was much of anything wrong with me, and said so, caustically pointing out than I hadn’t been shot or overdosed.

Thank God for small favors.

A friendlier nurse guided me to a shower stall, and then supplied me with new underwear, still in the package, a threadbare pair of polyester pants and a 50s-style sport shirt. My clothes reeked of smoke and despite my protests, were thrown away.

It was 8:00 AM when I was released and I had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t ready to return to 78 Washington Place just yet, so I went to work. What was I thinking?

Apparently I still smelled like smoke because everyone in the office stared. After telling and retelling my story, it became obvious I wasn’t going to get any work done that day. Luther, my boss, made a crack about me wearing some dead man’s clothes and sent me home. For the first time, I failed to appreciate his sardonic wit.

Walking down Washington Place, I felt dizzy when I saw the building. The front façade was blackened, and Jeff’s front window was now a gaping hole. Most of my fellow residents were gathered on or around the front stoop, and I was warmly welcomed. We exchanged war stories, and with rare candor Jeff admitted that the fire was his fault. He fell asleep with the hotplate on, somehow the tablecloth underneath ignited and the rest, as they say, is history. Opprobrium could be meted out later. I was glad that we all didn’t go down in flames together. Just then, as if on cue, a fire engine appeared on the block and rolled to a stop in front of the steps.

Jumping from the sides of the truck, the firefighters were pointing and calling out: “Mark Coleman! Hey Mark Coleman!”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The man who rescued me came up and reintroduced himself.

He shrugged off my expressions of gratitude with a belly laugh.

“You were scared shitless last night, Mark.”

The captain, a ruddy-faced middle-aged man wearing a dress uniform, emerged from the truck’s cab and pulled me aside.

“You were right to be scared.”


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