I was just sitting at my desk and heard a sudden slam and then a roaring rotary sound coming from the ceiling above me like a vacuum cleaner pressed on a hard wooden floor. Then came a rush of billowing smoke from the air conditioner vents above my head. My son was above me! My heart was pounding as I ran up to the third floor to check on Jordan… not home. Then I ran to be sure no one else was home. Then, standing away from where the fire was growing I called 911. After an incredulous four transfers, I spoke with someone who finally dispatched the fire department.
The smoke continued to pour out the vents on the middle floor as I was quickly trying to determine what to grab. First, my personal laptop, then, my work laptop. My mind is racing. What will we need to keep going if the house burns down? Then, I grabbed my wallet and then my battered copy of Liturgy of the Hours. Then, my briefcase and my passport. A quick glance around to see how quickly the house was filling with smoke and then down to the first floor and outside of the house. I set all the things down on a table in the back yard.
I circled the house checking the roof on all sides. Then I went back in to see if I could get more important things but my motivation was low. I was just thinking about how to be strategic about the limited time I had. I thought about my wife’s icon of the Last Supper. I decided to go back up and look around to see if I could find the source of the fire to determine how much time I might have. By now it appeared that the billowing from the vents was slowing down and the loud whirring grinding sound had stopped.
I could hear the fire trucks in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief. I also noticed that though the smoke was still hanging around and that it didn’t smell like smoke.
The fire trucks arrived and did a thorough search – nothing. Their theory is that the air conditioning system in the attic was malfunctioning. What a relief! Even so, I am still shaky from the initial adrenaline rush of worry about my son on the top floor.
Looking back on my own feelings about the situation is curious. For the most part, other than my prayer book, I had no instinct to preserve anything sentimental. Once I knew my son was ok, I was only thinking about the practical implications of losing our home and how I could keep working and mitigate the damage. The computers were a logical choice. I had no instinct or motivation to carry anything else out as I waited for the firemen.
It is also fascinating to note (at least in my mind) that I just returned from Dallas where I offered a one-day retreat for an exemplary group of Catholic lay leaders. We ended the session with a discussion about appetites, desires, attachments, and the common love of created things that can displace our love for God and inhibit our growth to a deeper relationship with Him.
What would you take if your house caught on fire and you only had a few minutes to breathe (and you knew everyone was safe)?
PS: God is good. Lord have mercy on those who’s homes were really on fire.