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Opinion | Fire in the hole

“Suddenly, the flame shot up. It climbed the back wall with a speed that seemed unnatural.”


We were startled. An electrical socket on our fireplace mantle popped a couple times and smoke filled the area around it. Veronica pulled out the electrical cord of the lamp plugged in there. The smoke dissipated.

So we settled in again, to continue our day’s debriefing last Tuesday evening. Shortly after, I noticed a glow in the back of the chair Veronica was sitting in. I stood up, and there was a small flame coming from the floor to the back of the chair. I alerted Veronica, and we threw some water on the flame. It tamped down, but I could see there was more flame underneath that chair.

Suddenly, the flame shot up. It climbed the back wall with a speed that seemed unnatural. Our big dog, a Lab-mix named Franklin, was eating his kibble. We headed out the door to the front porch. Franklin ran up the stairs to the second floor. I fumbled with my phone, trying to figure out how to call 911. I figured it out, as the flames inside our living room consumed the area and started to push outside the door we had just closed.

The fire department was on the way, but we had four small dogs in our bedroom upstairs. Our cat, a calico named Smudge, usually stayed in the loft, on the third floor. Before the firefighters arrived, a neighbor, Dustin, and I ran to our backyard to put our extension ladder up to the second floor so we could get the small dogs out of the bedroom.

Our home, built in 1909, has a “funeral door.” It’s a door older homes have that allowed a casket to be delivered for a wake before funeral homes were popular. It’s the back door to our bedroom.

I pushed through the door and saw four dogs, three pugs and a Yorkie-Poo, near panic. Smoke was thick in the room. I grabbed Nellie Bly, our 3-year-old pug, and put her out on the roof. She promptly came back in. I got hold of Keller, our blind black pug, and handed her to Dustin. He took her down the ladder. I grabbed Nellie again, and put her on the roof. She came right back in. The smoke was pouring through the bottom of the bedroom door. I picked up Penny Lane, a 13-year-old fawn pug we had just adopted because her human had died and nobody in her family would take her. Dustin took Penny down the ladder. I reached over and cuffed Nellie, placing her on the roof outside the door. Then I got Johnny, the Yorkie-Poo, and gave him to Dustin. Nellie Bly, once again, came back into the room. But I grabbed Nellie and gave her to Dustin, who took her down the ladder.

I sat on the edge of the roof, my legs hanging over the edge, as firefighters came around the back, asking if anybody was in the house. I told them nobody was, but I had completely forgottenabout Smudge. I went back to the funeral door, but the smoke was consuming the bedroom. I didn’t dare open the bedroom door. I may have been a coward. Every movie I had ever seen that involved a fire showed the flames shooting through the door after it was opened. The firefighter in the backyard told me to get down from the roof. I gingerly turned around, put my foot on the ladder, and the firefighter said, “Just come on; I’ll get you.”

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He got me.

We went back around to the front of the house. I didn’t see any more flames, but smoke was billowing out. The firefighters wanted to check me out, to make sure I hadn’t inhaled too much smoke. As a smoker, I’m always inhaling too much smoke. They checked me, and I was fine.

We didn’t know where Franklin or Smudge were. The other four dogs were in the backyard. An animal control representative, Officer Pitts, showed up, got our information, and while she was doing that, we learned that Smudge had been found in the second bedroom. Dead. Her little body was claimed by Officer Pitts. Then, a firefighter came out of our front door, carrying Franklin, a 100-pound lug, who was stunned and, nose singed from flame, seemed to be in shock. Officer Pitts and I went to him and tried to calm him. He calmed.

Then Officer Pitts and I went over to the backyard to get the other pups. We found Keller and Penny, but couldn’t find Nellie or Johnny. I noticed our back door was open. So I went into the house, using my iPhone flashlight to guide me, searching for the two feisty dogs.

I was stunned at how much damage the fire had done, and this in only a few minutes. The Birmingham firefighters were efficient: They saved the structure, extinguished the fire, but smoke and water damage was complete. None of our art had survived. My Pulitzer Prize certificate had been destroyed. A set of antique books from the 18th and 19th centuries were pulp. My six-volume set of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln was gone.

Animal control’s Officer Pitts came into the house and told me that Nellie Bly and Johnny had been retrieved by our neighbor and were now in her truck, with Franklin, Keller, and Penny.

Our across-the-street neighbors, Kathy and Rod, were hosting us on their porch. Rod gave me a glass of bourbon. Veronica was filling in the police and firefighters on our details. An EMS officer examined Veronica to make sure she was OK. She was. And is.

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Our friends, another Kathy, and her husband Steve, were there, along with their son, Jonathan. Kathy arranged a hotel suite for us. Steve, who is also our lawyer, gathered the various case numbers to follow up on.

Veronica and I were numb. We were exhausted. The firefighters departed. Officer Pitts left with our dogs and little Smudge’s body.

And suddenly, we were alone. We drove to the Residence Inn at University Boulevard and 20th Street South. We claimed our room. Everybody was being so nice to us. We, like Zombies, got to our room. It’s a nice room. We fell into the king-sized bed.

We fell into it, and we did not sleep.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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