Yesterday, while walking our dogs around the lovely esplanade a block from our house, my husband and I said hello to a young couple coming out of their house for a stroll with their baby in a carriage. Just a few hours later, their house had burned to the ground.
Police had barricaded the neighborhood all the way up to our cross street as local firefighters battled flames so intense I could see their orange shimmer all the way from our house and through dozens of trees. As I stood outside with many neighbors, ominous brown clouds of smoke rose high into the air, darkening patches of blue sky for what we soon realized had to be far too long to be the result of any small-scale blaze. It was terrifying. Shaking hands with people I didn’t know and saying hello to those I did as more and more emergency vehicles screamed into our midst, I really wanted to hug all of them.
We stayed a block away, unlike the surprising quantity of gawkers who rushed toward the violent inferno, so we couldn’t tell exactly whose home it was until later, when the local news had our neighborhood in its sights. I watched a video online of the house’s entire burning frontispiece crashing into the front yard, something I wish I could un-see.
This morning, I walked down and saw that only a crumbling piece of the back wall stood, charred black with eerie glassless windows like punched out eyes. A giant hole will soon be all that remains between two tall houses, as a back hoe was already brought in to remove what I imagine is toxic waste now, but that was — just yesterday — a families’ furniture, clothing, photos, books. Like a missing tooth in a row of teeth, the absence already gapes. The air smells bad and the streets are still wet, a rude reminder that the first hydrant opened was completely dry, and the second had little water pressure, that fire fighters had to drag 1,500-foot hoses from the next street over, surely costing precious time. I heard that the gawkers helped drag the hose, at least.
Amazingly, all six people who were living in the burning house, including that tiny baby, made it out.
I was surprised to learn that the next door neighbors had brought out a ladder and helped some of the residents escape from the top floor. I don’t personally know the people whose house is gone, and barely know the ones who helped, but I feel like they are part of our extended family today. And I’m not alone. A GoFundMe drive, circulated on our neighborhood Facebook page, had already broken its $10,000 goal less that 24 hours after we said hello to the couple walking their baby.
The same page had comment after comment reporting important news as it happened, expressing concern for all affected, and reminding all of us to check our fire detectors and extinguishers, to keep an eye on each other. In no time, a woman posted, “OK guys, where do we start with our donations?” Dozens immediately chimed in offering to help in any way. “Material things can be replaced and I’m SURE this community will pull together for the family,” wrote another. There were prayers for the brave souls who risked themselves to fight the fire and shared gratitude when we learned everyone was OK.
I’m only on the local Facebook page because another neighbor clued me in about it just last week when our beloved cat went missing. It was incredibly heartwarming to see so many strangers care about a silly middle-aged feline, and to want to pitch in. Several rode their bikes and walked around the streets calling for him alongside us. (The cat is home, thank heavens, little jerk.)
Holyoke is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts. We can only afford our beautiful house in this historic area because we bought it here, in a once-successful, now collapsed, paper mill town. We’ve never lived anywhere with such character, or anywhere we liked our neighbors so much. A few are now close friends, and we are on good terms with everyone. I love walking the dogs here, checking out the cool Victorian architecture and old trees, waving to friendly people. Though we sometimes wish to live in a place more remote and private with more space, I am so grateful we landed here, among people who — despite sometimes being nosy, messy, or loud — really care about each other.
Already, the mayor has announced he’s making the water hydrant issue a top priority, that it is “extremely concerning… No resident or business should have to worry about this happening in the event of a fire.” He thanked the fire department and neighbors who assisted them, and even shared the GoFundMe page, encouraging the community to contribute. I have no doubt its balance will continue to grow and grow.
“Take care, stay safe!” I called out to folks as I waved goodbye to them last night, blue emergency lights still bouncing all over and yellow police tape sagging across the intersection. “You too!” they replied. “We’re always here if you need us.”
I feel rich today.