Friday, February 17, 2006

Routine Keeps You Sane

It's strange to slip into habits when the need arises. I suppose we create routine not because we need to, but just so we have something to follow in times of crisis. Strangely enough, this is what I did today - follow a routine in order to keep myself together, because my other resort would be either to cry or to throw things or to hide in a corner for the rest of my life.

This morning, around 7.30 AM, my dad gently roused me from my bed. "Gabs," he said, "there's a fire in Unit 19. Pack your things just in case."

My first thought was that it was in Unit 19 - we lived in Unit 12, so that was a good five or six houses away. But people were streaming out from all of the houses, and the smoke was drifting our way. I grabbed a shawl and my shoulder bag, and then rummaged around for a bigger bag to stuff clothes in. I also took the plastic drawer that contained important documents - my birth certificates and college papers, NUS application documents and papers from work. Outside, our neighbors were already gathering at the common parking lot, looking at the black smoke that was billowing out from the second floor window of Unit 19. Faulty wiring, someone said. The airconditioner sparked and papers caught on fire.

It was like being in a movie. My dad had rescued his laptop and my siblings' important documents. Ate Grace lifted everything she coudl carry, including a plasic box full of clothes and two bags' worth of clothes for Louie and Bea. Smoke filled our eyes and noses, and water from neighborhood hoses - those who were washing their cars or doing laundry when the fire started - quickly stained the compound's walls and asphalt walks. But it wasn't enough. And the fire was spreading.

The thing is, since we live in a townhouse compound, all units were stuck together. Ten houses in front, and ten at the back. We lived at the back row, where the fire was. Which meant that there was a very good chance that the flames could jump from house to house. Strangely enough, watching this happen, it felt like it was a scene from a movie. Louie was beside me, shielding his eyes from the morning sunlight as we watched the glass from Unit 19's windows shatter because of the heat. Around us, people were scrambling for their cellphones, calling the fire station, the ambulance, family members.

The smoke was already spreading in both directions: the townhouse compound was constructed with firewalls, which meant that in case of a fire, the houses were built in such a way that the fire and smoke would be drawn upwards, into the hollow spaces between our ceilings and roofs, and spill out of drainage grills that were constructed beneath the eaves of the houses. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that our entire second floor was obscured by thick, black smoke.

Louie was already on the phone with my mom. I rang my boss up, telling him I might not be able to make it to work because of the fire. And then I called Bea up. She was at school. Today was the first day of the Miriam Grade School Fair. I told her as quick as I could, factual-like, that Unit 19 was on fire, and that we had gotten some clothes out for her, and that the firemen were on their way. She burst into tears. As I spoke, the sirens from fire trucks could be heard loud and clear, and firefighters from the Quezon City Fire Department rushed into our compound, efficiently putting out the blaze and cutting down the smoke. My dad rushed back and forth, checking our house and our things to see if everything was still intact. The firemen crawled through the firewalls of the houses, checking to see if the fire had spread and dampening the smoke.

The owners of Unit 19 were already being treated by the EMTs at this point - I think a couple lived there with their mom, new neighbors we really didn't know - it was the husband who got hit on the head with either falling debris or when their aircon burst. He had a head wound and minor burns. Both he and his wife, still wearing rumpled bedclothes like the most of us, were covered in soot and ash. Water was everywhere. There was no electricity on our block.

The barangay captain and his aids were already there, surveying the damage. Piles of our things - clothes, bags, electronics - were haphazardly placed on the sidewalk, away from the water. My eyes were stinging from the smoke, and I could feel my lungs were about to burst. It hurt to breathe. The firemen made sure that the blaze didn't spread across our compound, nor did it affect the apartment block at the back. Police were already interviewing us, asking about the circumstances in which we were all dragged away from our morning routines, or beds (as was in my case), and taking down notes. ABS-CBN even showed up with a cameraman and a reporter, taking stock of the debris. we all looked like refugees in half-fixed states of dress: I was still in my nightgown, my hair yanked into an untidy bun, a shawl covering my nose and mouth. Some were already dressed, ready for work. Others, like me, were still in bedclothes, damp towels covering their noses.

When the firemen allowed us to go back inside the house, everything smelled of smoke: it clung to our clothes and our books, and there were rust-colored puddles of water on the floor. Water had also seeped into our ceiling. Thankfully, nothing was damaged.

As soon as the water came on again, Louie and took baths - he had a 10AM class he really couldn't miss, and I had to get out of the house because the smell of smoke was driving my lungs crazy. I left before 11, when the homeowners had all brought out monobloc chairs and were having a meeting to discuss what we were going to do afterwards. All I knew was that I needed something to hold on to - otherwise, I'd probably cry.

Isn't it weird? The place you feel the safest in is the one that could have really, really killed you?

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