Tuesday, August 17, 2010
That day the dorm staff met in the lobby at 10 AM to discuss basic protocol and safety regulations. My hall director discussed what to do on the job and how to handle emergency situations, like in the case of a fire in the building or a shooter on campus. I listened intently, but thought to myself “that’s never going to happen to me”, like we all do when we hear about crazy situations. I just knew that work would be normal and uneventful, and I was glad about it.
The meeting ended, and the crew dispersed. I lived in a room on the fourth floor, in a building that annoyingly did not have air conditioning. Living on the fourth floor, in the farthest room from the front, it was quite an extraordinary effort to climb up seventy-two steps of stairs just to get something out of my room. So like the lazy person that I was, I thought it was a perfectly logical idea to take the convenient elevator. Even though the building was a million years old (well, more like forty, but who’s counting?) I still had confidence in the elevator, despite the fact that it was slow and slightly rickety. So I pushed the up arrow and as the doors opened I walked across the landing and stepped inside into the small metal chamber, paint chipping off the walls and a “secret” camera in the corner following my every move.
As the doors closed I prepared to be safely taken up to my floor. And then I hear the sirens. The fire alarm started screaming its banshee call all around me. The sound seemed to penetrate the air with its deafening howl. Instantly the already small five by five foot space became the size of a shoe box, a shoe box that was soon going to be filled with smoke. Panic poured over my body, like a giant bucket of ice cold water, and I was paralyzed by the icy sensation. One thought consumed my brain. There was a fire in the building and I was stuck in the elevator, the worst place to be. Like an animal in a cage, waiting for the outside predator to eventually find it and pounce. I was trapped.
After what seemed to be an eternity of fear and claustrophobia, I remembered there were emergency buttons staring me right in the face. The “FIRE DEPT” and “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY” buttons that your mother tells you never to press when you’re a child, but you always secretly want to push just to see what will happen. I realized that NOW was the time to press those forbidden buttons. And so I frantically punched the buttons with all the force I had in me. I had no idea if the elevator was continuing its journey skyward or whether it had stopped altogether. I figured I might as well try pressing the “open door” button, hoping with all I had that it would open and let me free. Spastically, I pressed and pressed. And then miraculously, my guardian angel pried open the thick metal doors and the vacant second floor hall appeared in my sight. Sheer relief at not being confined in my shoebox prison spread throughout my body, until I realized I was still not home free. I shot out of the elevator, a bullet in a loaded gun, and zipped down the two flights of stairs, across the lobby, and out of the door. I could see the rest of the dorm inhabitants in the courtyard a few yards ahead, and in a few seconds I was safe at home plate.
No one knew what had caused the fire. There were about twenty of us, so the likelihood that someone had forgotten about their popcorn in the microwave was very small. And it was too soon to have a fire drill, so there was something else going on here. We waited five minutes, and then the sirens of the fire trucks alerted us that help was here. After fifteen minutes, the fire fighters came out of the building and alerted us as to the cause of the fire. It had so happened that the elevator had finally thrown in the towel after so many years, and a fire had started in the shaft. As I heard this, the feeling of panic and fear began to burn in my chest. I had unintentionally started the fire, because I had been lazy. Of course, it was bound to happen eventually, but MURPHY’s LAW, I was the one who brought the trouble on.
Later on, when I realized exactly what day it was, I had to laugh. And then I remembered that around midnight the night before, I had seen a black cat sprawling out on the grass as I had walked nearby. I had not been superstitious at the time, but I now felt a chill run down my spine. What a cliché. This was just too, too much.