It started at around 1am. Dasha was in the bedroom sleeping, and I was in the main room finishing some work. That’s when I smelled the smoke. I open the door that leads to the little hallway, at the end of which is the apartment door — the only door out. The smoke in the hall hit me immediately. I coughed my way to the door and opened it.
Not good. I couldn’t see two feet. Back inside — close the door.
“Dasha, I’m sorry but you need to get up,” I said, as I pulled the blanket off her. “There’s a fire.”
She sat bolt upright. “Fire?!”
You could hear the yelling, now. A neighbor urging people to wake up and get out, get out!
No, this is definitely not good.
Dasha’s getting dressed and I look at myself…Yes, street clothes. Good idea. But looking back, that’s probably when we lost our chance to get out.
She scurried to the main door — “No, don’t open it, sweety,” I told her. “It’s bad.” She put her ear to the door, trying to hear what the people were yelling. “Fire,” she repeated. “That lady is saying get out. Mark, what do we do?”
You don’t find yourself in many situations like this in life. The mind moves fast. “Can you get me the towels your mom gave us, honey? The thick ones.”
“Soak them good in water and put them at the base of the door.” While she did that, I started packing the essentials: Passport, money, laptop, medicines. It’s funny the things you grab when you have only thirty seconds to pack. For some reason, I grabbed all the pens on my desk and stuffed them in the bag. I guess I figured good writing utensils were hard to come by in Ukraine.
Bag packed, I headed to the balcony. I looked down: twenty feet to the pavement. You don’t realize how high up you are until you contemplate jumping. A fall this high, you’re lucky if you only break your legs. Jumping was going to be an option of last resort.
That’s when the power went out.
BOOM — total darkness. That was one of the worst feelings, because Dasha truly was terrified. People are screaming, the place is filling with smoke, and now it was dead black inside the apartment. The heart rate triples. Fight or flight.
I knew Dasha had my phone, because she tried calling the fire department while she was dressing — but alas you can only call from a land-line. But I wanted the phone as a makeshift flashlight…”Dash, use my phone. It makes light.”
She fumbled with it. Panicking. “It’s not working! It won’t turn on!” The darkness was crushing her. She was crying, now.
“Let me try?” I asked, as calmly as possible. I turned my phone on, and finally we could see a bit. “Candles, honey. The ones my mom gave us. Where are they?”
“In the kitchen. Above the stove to the left.”
“Ok. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
I took a last breath of fresh balcony air, opened the door to the hall — phoo, smokey! It was that stinky, industrial smoke. I hurried to the kitchen, and grabbed the candles and a box of matches. Wait! The flashlight. It was in one of my jacket pockets. As I searched for it there by the apartment door, I listened, too. It worried me that there were no sounds in the stairwell. I suspected no one was leaving because no one could leave.
I joined Dasha back on the balcony and gave her the task of lighting the two candles. I think giving her something to do took her mind off the fear. A little.
“Next, sweety, I need some thin towels. Are there any in the bedroom closet?”
“Yes.” She went to get them.
I took one from her and turned on the flashlight. “I’m going to see how far I can get down the stairs. Do you remember how many flights of stairs to go down? Three flights, or just two?” I know — I’ve been living in this apartment for a year, I should know whether there are two flights of stairs or three. But I guess I was panicking a bit, too. And I wanted to be sure. She closed her eyes and counted. “Three.”
Damnit. “Ok. I”ll be right back sweety.”
“No!” She was crying freely, now. It hurt to look at, let me tell you. I hugged her tight and assured her everything was going to be fine.
I put the thin kitchen towel over my mouth, opened the apartment door and stepped out. The flashlight penetrated maybe two feet into the smoke. I couldn’t see my own feet, and had to guess where the steps were. I took a step to the left, to the stairs, and was swallowed by the haze. Could I hold my breath and make it down? Three flights? How was I going to hold the rag over my mouth, hold the flashlight, and hold the railing, too?
I hurried back inside.
Shit. This could be a problem.
Before heading to the balcony, I zipped into the kitchen and opened the windows there. At least get as much clean air into the apartment as possible. I wasn’t really worried about the smoke, because leaning out the balcony, there air was fine. But Dasha learned from the people yelling outside that the fire was in the basement — two floors below us. People saw flames. And if the flames came up…
We needed another way out.
“Sweety? I know we have lots of different sheets. Can you find me the two longest ones?”
“Yes, I know which ones.”
I can’t believe I was even considering such a move. Tying together bedsheets? Does that even work? But at the moment, I liked the idea a whole lot better than jumping. Dasha did, too, judging from how quickly she found them. “Help me make a knot.”
After we tied the two sheets together, I tested them. “Pull as hard as you can, Dasha. Stand by the bed in case they untie.” But they didn’t. I doubt we had 200 lbs of pressure on those things — no where close to my body weight, in other words — but it was something. Luckily, below the bedroom window there’s one of those archaic solid iron radiators they still use here to heat apartments. That’s where I tied one end. Then I unraveled the rest out the window. The bottom sheet dangled maybe six feet above the pavement. It would be good enough. If it came to it, we’d toss the mattress out the window as a cushion.
“Mark, I don’t think I can climb down. My arms are weak. What if I fall?”
“We’ll tie a second one around your waist, ok? If the knot slips on one, the other will hold you. It’s not far. You’ll go fast.”
And there we waited, sitting on the bedroom floor, huddled under a blanket. It wasn’t that cold, especially considering it’s the middle of February, but the worry makes you cold, I guess.
In the end, the fire department showed up and we were able to get out — down the stairs — at about 4 am.
And what I learned from this? Be prepared. Have a plan, and have a backup plan. Keep fresh batteries and water in the house. And don’t panic.