It was five a.m. on Shabbos morning when my husband woke up with a start. “There’s a fire somewhere,” he said. “I can smell the smoke.”
If anyone wants to get me up on a Shabbos morning, that’s the way to do it. My eyes instantly popped open. “Are you sure?” I asked. There was no need for him to answer. There was a definite smell of smoke, and it was coming from outside the bedroom window. I jumped out of bed, got dressed as fast as only a fire could compel me, and ran to my kids’ room. “There’s a fire!” I yelled. “Get dressed and RUN!”
Within seconds everybody was up and dressed.
My husband ran down to investigate. Barely making it through the smoke-filled staircase, he came back to report that the shoe store on the ground floor of our building was on fire.
A little explanation is in order here. I live in Jerusalem, in an eight-story apartment building. There are seven such buildings on the block. The ground floors facing the street are commercial property and rented out to shops and businesses. The other floors and the ground-floor apartments that don’t face the street are residential apartments, overlooking or leading to a playground.
So there we were, on the third floor of a burning building, and we needed to get out fast! We heard the welcoming, wailing sounds of fire engines approaching, and it was one of the sweetest sounds I’d ever heard. I made a desperate panic-filled head count, and was about to rush everyone out the door when a firm order was heard in the stairwell: “Stay right where you are! Do not leave the building—there’s too much smoke in the stairwell! Families will be evacuated if necessary.”
There was something very chilling about it. We were at the mercy of these well-meaning, yet very human firefighters.
In case I thought my panic was at its peak, it wasn’t. A moment later we found ourselves hosting some unexpected guests. Our neighbors, whose apartment was situated directly above the burning shoe store, were ordered by the firemen to move to a back-facing apartment—ours—since the rising smoke was filling their apartment very rapidly, rendering it almost impossible to breathe. In trooped the family, all ten or 11 members, the older ones respectably dressed, the younger ones in matching pajamas that matched their pink or blue Crocs, whichever was appropriate.
I quickly scanned my dining room, trying to see it through the eyes of my neighbor, Mrs. Perfect. Thankfully, the Friday night meal had been cleared from the table (not always a given), but the floor hadn’t been swept, and there were parshah sheets and several magazines strewn all over the couch. So was the challah cover, which was really shameful since it had absolutely no business being there. But the seudah had ended so late and I’d been so tired. Please give me some slack, I mentally implored her. Mrs. Perfect thanked me ever so perfectly for allowing them into our home and pretended not to notice the disarray.
But even in our rear-facing apartment the fumes quickly became unbearable, driving us out to the balcony overlooking the playground. We saw families still in their pajamas—they’d been quicker than we were and gotten out before the order came to stay inside—walking around the park in their nighttime garb, in full view of all their friendly neighbors in all seven eight-story buildings on the block.