Fire is a good servant, helping us with the cooking and providing warmth during those chilly winter nights, but it can also be a bad master when we underestimate its destructive power. It’s for this reason that fire needs to be handled with care. Playing with it can be dangerous, and at times can also prove fatal to those unfortunate enough to find themselves in its path. Our next-door neighbours were lucky in that nobody was injured, but the same thing cannot be said about their beloved house. Although it’s been ten years now, I can still remember the whole thing as if it were yesterday, and each time, the thought of that terrifying episode makes my blood run cold.
It was a hot stuffy summer night when it all took place. Back then air-conditioners were not a common sight, so everyone had no choice but to resort to leaving the windows wide open at night to let the breeze in. Not that one could have used the air-conditioner that night anyway – there was a power cut, which in turn also explains the cause of the fire. From accounts following the incident, it seems that it all started because of an oil lamp that had been left on a cupboard in the sitting room downstairs. A strong gust of wind must have come in through the window, knocking the oil lamp over onto the curtain, which burst into flames in no time. The fresh breeze from the open windows kept feeding the hungry flames, which continued eating away at the walls and furniture. The fire spread quickly and soon the sofa, carpets and furniture were ablaze.
It was the acrid smell of burning that woke up the occupants of the house from their dreams, to an even worse nightmare. They jumped out of their beds, ran downstairs, and made a dash for the door, but they were stopped in their tracks when part of the ceiling came crushing down in front of them, blocking their only way of escape. It was then that their heart missed a beat, realising for the first time that they were trapped. They remained frozen still, shocked at the sight of that burning inferno. The pungent smoke filled their nostrils and lungs, making them choke and cough. The heat was like a solid wall. Going forward was pointless!
Fear rose in their throat at the thought of dying, and they wanted to cry, but they fought down their panic and tried to think clearly of a good plan instead. Spurred by their terror and the will to survive, they ran back upstairs, swift as a cat, and sprang into the bathroom. While trying to regain lost breath, their father immediately soaked them from head to toe with water. He also got towels, put them under the running water, and placed some of them on their heads. The remaining wet towels were placed under the door to stop the smoke coming in. Then their father opened the window and they all started to scream and yell at the top of their voices.
It was that blood curdling sound of screaming which startled me from my sleep. I was not prepared for what I was about to see however. Peering out of my bedroom window I came face to face with our neighbour’s house, completely engulfed by the fire. I rushed to my parents’ room to tell dad, who immediately went to call the fire brigade and the hospital to send a rescue team.
In a matter of minutes we heard the shrill noise of the sirens and soon after the fire-engine could be seen speeding down the street, followed by an ambulance and a police car, and coming to a sudden halt just in front of the house. The firemen immediately jumped down from their truck, unrolled the water hosepipes and placed a long ladder against the wall. A brave fireman climbed the ladder to reach the trapped family, while the rest of the team, with hosepipes in hand, fought hard to control the terrible flames. In those frightful moments that followed, it was as if time stood still. The firemen kept directing powerful streams of water into the burning building, but the flames showed no sign of wanting to die. Finally, after what seemed like ages, the trapped neighbours were brought down to safety, to the joy and clapping of all the people who had come on the scene. They had been saved in the nick of time!
The paramedics, who until then were on stand-by, lowered each one of them onto the waiting stretchers, and rushed them to hospital. Although they weren’t injured, they were suffering from a terrible shock and had inhaled lots of toxic fumes. The firemen stayed behind until the flames had been completely extinguished. What remained of the house were the blackened walls; the inside was collapsing.
That night I couldn’t catch any sleep because of all the commotion. I felt agitated, and the crackling sound of the spent flames and the crashing stones kept me awake all through the night.