Saturday, February 10, 2007
Fire and Water
Two little girls died in a fire a few blocks from my home early Thursday morning.
Their names were Fatin Lazhir, 2, and Aya Khawatmi, 4, and they died when an electrical cord powering a space heater sparked a three-alarm inferno.
The girls were living in the same house where my sister had her first apartment nearly 30 years ago. And they died on the same day as Anna Nicole Smith.
I was in bed when this was going on, listening to Morning Edition on NPR. I heard sirens, but that's a common sound in New York, so I didn't pay much attention, even though they were pretty close.
It was about 5:30 a.m. and I just wanted to relax a little before getting up and starting what I knew would be a tough day at the office. This was the big retail day, when companies release their monthly same-store sales figures, and I had to be in an hour earlier to start pounding out the story.
The sirens eventually stopped, but helicopters kept buzzing on and on, right over my house as if we were being invaded, which I suppose we were. The noise was loud enough to drown out my radio and get me out of bed to peer out the window.
It still dark out, there was a full moon shining in the middle of the sky, with four helicopters floating around it like satellites. I knew then the fire had to be pretty big to attract all this attention and I was glad that I was no longer a police reporter.
It was--and still is--freezing cold here and I know all too well what it's like to cover a three-alarmer in sub-zero weather.
I got dressed, had breakfast, and headed off to work. I noticed a fire engine a few blocks up on Fifth Avenue and quickly forgot all about it until I call Mary, my father's former aide, and found out the fire had been a fatal.
The Daily News said the mother broke down at the scene and began speaking to the photos of the children in her cell phone as if they were still alive.
If I had been there, I would've had to write about that, tried to interview family members at the worst possible time of their lives, and quite possibly, I would have cursed and driven off like a criminal.
I always tried to be considerate when approaching a grieving family, but there's no good way of doing it, and you can't blame people for turning their rage on you.
Their funeral was held right around the corner from me at the Islamic Center of Bay Ridge, in a place that used to be nightclub when I was a kid, until it burned to the ground. The newspaper ran a photo and a short story several pages back. The first eight pages were dedicated to Anna Nichole Smith.
On The Scene
People are here are still talking about the fire, though. One woman complained to me about the Arabs, how they cram people into apartments and don't take care of their buildings.
I was talking with the cashier at my butcher shop and the next man on line just pushed into the conversation and the cashier began talking to him. It was like passing a baton at a relay race.
"Is that the place on 73rd Street?" I heard him ask as I walked out of the store.
I went by the house this afternoon. The top floors were burned out and covered with boards and the front of the building was roped off by yellow emergency tape. God knows I've seen plenty of that stuff in my life.
The front steps were covered with flowers, candles, and dolls. It all seemed so futile, but when faced with such a horror, gestures are all we have.
I walked by the building quickly, went halfway up the block, then crossed the street and came back down for another look.
I had remnants of that old reporter dread as walked around the building, convinced someone would come charging out and yell out me for being a heartless scumbag. It's like a prizefighter who still hears bells long after he's left the ring.
Fire scenes are always brutal. You've got trucks and firefighters all over the place, cops trying to keep people away, terrified residents huddled in a cluster, usually in their pyjamas.
You've got reporters trying to interview everyone at once and not get bounced from the scene by one of the firemen. And, if the blaze is big enough, you'll have TV news helicopters flying overhead.
The air stinks of burning wood and all sorts of materials, a smell that will instantly seep into your clothing so that hours later some schmuck will walk up to you and say, "Gee, you smell like a fire." You got me there, Einstein.
I've covered some spectacular blazes in my time. The biggest was the Salvation Army thrift center in East Stroudsburg, Pa. The place was the size of an airplane hanger and filled with old clothes and furniture.
The fire broke out in the wiring on a Saturday night and had plenty of time to build strength before anyone knew what was going on. By then it was much too late. The place burned like something out of a Seventies disaster movie.
Then there was gas station in E-burg that caught fire and I could see the flames from the highway as I drove to the scene. A church in Stroudsburg blew up due to a gas leak, but I don't think there was much of a fire. Just one huge blast.
I froze my butt off that night. I was talking to a woman from one of the Scranton TV stations and we could not believe how cold it was. She gave me a tip about using a pencil instead of a pen in the extreme cold because the ink might freeze up.
Most of the fires I wrote about were over by the time I showed up, having done their damage at night in some distant part of the county. I covered a fire that destroyed motel in Mount Pocono and then went back a few days later when the handyman, whom everyone thought was out of town, was actually dead and covered in ashes.
I was there when a state trooper picked up the blackened body and put it on the dead man's cot.
"Back in bed," the cop said with a professional kind of sarcasm.
They put the corpse in a body bag, everyone reached for a handle and there was one left. The coroner, who was a nice guy, looked at me and just said, "Rob?"
So I grabbed the last handle and helped carry the poor guy out to the ambulance. It was one of the things that I consider weird, but necessary.
We had a fire on Senator Street when I was a kid, just a few houses down and across the street. The house belonged to Mrs. Smith, your standard-issue mean old lady, who used to yell at kids if they came anywhere near her house.
At that time, my brothers and I were always fighting with my sister, and we were under the impression the house belonged to one of her friends. I started to tease her--remember I was quite young--and my mother got in my face big time.
"Fire is a very terrible thing for us," she said, glaring me into silence.
Yes, it is. And we saw that just a few blocks from here, while I was worried about my tough day of the office.
I was looking up Arabic phrases on line, hoping to find something that could describe how I felt about the loss of these two little girls. This was the best I could do:Laila sa'eda wa ahlaam ladida.
Good night and sweet dreams. What else can you say?