You could tell immediately that this time was different. The slight uptempo and volume of the man’s cadence over the intercom sounded the alarm far more effectively than bells. “Ladies and Gentleman, Ladies and Gentleman” (hear ye hear ye, important announcements always begin with repetition). “There is a fire at the 9th Avenue entrance! If you leave the building, please exit on the 10th Avenue side.” Some ran for the exits, but most of us stood awkwardly, confused, “does that mean we should go?” I couldn’t remember if I was still the floor’s designated fire marshal, so just in case I said, “Everyone remain calm. I’m not sure that means we have to leave.” I don’t think it helped matters.
Someone finally pulled up Twitter: “Whoa, gas main explosion on 9th Avenue!” I felt vaguely scared and texted my wife: “Fire on 9th ave and 15. Evacuating. Love you.” The last part was a little dramatic admittedly but the intercom voice sounded serious and I was getting carried away. I asked a pregnant coworker if I could help her carry… anything… “Like what?” she asked. I didn’t know.
It was one of those brutally hot days in New York where you can feel the heat radiating straight off the buildings. I didn’t really want to go outside, but the rush of bodies toward the exit made me feel a little stupid if I didn’t leave now, considering the dramatic text and all. Everyone looked as confused as I felt. “He didn’t technically say we have to leave, right?” By the time I made it to the 10th Avenue side of the building, the report of “gas main explosion” turned into “minor fire at Chelsea Market.” I was disappointed and stood looking out toward the river, assessing the urgency of the situation, or lack of it, by the flow of traffic on the Westside Highway. Tourists walked the pedestrian path gingerly with umbrellas and sips of Gatorade. Construction workers sat in the shade with their heads bowed, helmets off, neon green shirts soaked through at the pits. I shot off another text to my wife: “Not evacuating. All good.” She hadn’t even responded.
I hadn’t received a work email in about 15 minutes at this point, so I decided to take a stroll outside. A fire truck’s faint siren down down the block reignited a feeling of danger, but only briefly. Probably a coincidence, I thought, and sat down in the small park hugging the highway. My work phone buzzed. An instant message from Kip saying the team should regroup at Brass Monkey for a “firedrill happy hour.” I decided I’d rather sit on the bench and bake. My wife still hadn’t responded and I had nothing to think about, so I started walking back toward the office.
That’s when I smelled the smoke. Something metallic in it struck me as really unusual and there it was again, the danger. I started to text my wife again, “hey i think…” But then a siren blared and a cop whizzed by. Now dread and the metallic smell of fire revealed itself in a flash of flame and smoke. Something in the distance glowed red on the sidewalk and moved like a sheet in the wind. It fell to the ground, bounced back up and veered violently back into the street. I could see people jumping out of the way but not fleeing, like a group of toreadors in a bullfight. A metallic smell turned distinctly into burnt hair and what could only be, by visceral knowledge, charred flesh. The sirens grew louder and it became terribly clear.
I stood in horror, frozen by a paralyzing tonic of helplessness, panic and disbelief. I started backing away unconsciously, my eyes burning, shoulders tensed. The ding of my phone brought me to and I looked down at my wife’s text: “glad ur ok hunny. what’s for dinner?”