March break. I should have known. I have no idea why, but, for some god-forsaken-reason, I never have a good March break. Rather than bore you with details, (although you are free to ask) just take me at my word; I was honestly conscientious that March break was fast approaching. I hadn't gone out of my way to pack a bug-out kit or anything, but, I'd be lying if I hadn't thought about it. So, by the time Thursday had rolled around, my guard was down; proverbial shields lowered. Nothing of any import had remotely occurred, and I had nearly put the whole bad luck charm, behind me.
I play Warcraft; not casually. I take pride in my raid healing, and look forward to taking on some of the hardest challenges Warcraft can throw at us. A typical raid can last over three hours, and occurs at least a couple times every week; today was raid day. The entire day had passed uneventful; yet another day in the spring of 2014 – which I'm certain will go down in a few weather books, as the longest, coldest winter and spring on record. At this point, most people are jokingly making quips about Mother Nature needing to take a few Valium and go cuddle with Old Man Winter; both needing a serious mood elevator, as their insanity and mood swings are driving the rest of us batty. I hadn't made supper yet, and since the Warcraft raid was already starting, I merely assumed I would just do so, when we were finished. The time on the clock was 7:30 pm. Without boring you about the events of the game, let's just settle for the old expression, “we were kicking proverbial backside, and taking identification”. I had lost track of time; it's the social aspect of gaming I enjoy the most – time spent with others to achieve a common goal. Toss in a little pride and some friendly competition, and it makes for a great time spent with online friends.
I heard voices rise over the din of spells, and crash of battle. I thumbed the volume down a bit, and strained to hear the shouting; coming from upstairs, and no one I recognized. I turned up the volume over the clatter and continued to heal my friends, with my prowess as a Paladin.
At 8:05 pm, our raid leader called a break. I stood up and walked over to the bathroom. I heard running coming from the second floor. “Must be a kid”, I muttered, as I headed into the facilities. I heard more shouting. I finished, washed my hands, and headed back to my desk, as I heard a voice I recognized. I couldn't make out a single word, but from the infliction and tone, I knew it was my neighbour. I opened the door and peered down the hallway, but when I seen no one around, I closed the door. Our raid leader started barking fight orders, and I became lost in the world of Azeroth.
How do you describe the feeling of a bomb?
I was rocking the heals hardcore, when this sudden energy pulse hit. I felt it, as I heard a distinct “Whooof”. I remember pausing, my fingers hovering over the computer keys, as my friends were fighting for their lives against one of the denizens of Azeroth. The voices of my friends suddenly shocked me back to action, “Zzorhn! Move!!” I jumped back to action, and quickly forgot about the fighting upstairs. A few minutes later, the fire alarm, began to ring.
The damn bell is outside my room. “Ugh!”, I groaned, as I turned up the volume on my computer. I sighed as I ran a list of possible scenarios; the fight upstairs caused someone to panic, some kid pulled the alarm, or even, the neighbour upstairs was burning her cookies in the toaster oven again. I couldn't hear the raid leader over the cacophony coming from the hall, so I turned the volume up even louder. I smiled, as I realized, the commotion, clatter and noise merely added to my game's ambiance.
We wiped on the boss! “Argh”, I sighed. I sat back in my chair and listened to the droning of the bell, just outside my room. “That stupid thing should have been turned off by now”, I muttered in irritation, looked around my room, and the window outside; nothing out of the ordinary – no fire trucks, no Police. I turned back to my computer, and got ready for the next attempt at killing the Warcraft boss. The clock read 8:26 pm. The raid leader barked, and the fight started.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
I turned my head to look at my window in confusion and irritation. My neighbour was standing outside my window, and nearly breaking the glass to get my attention. “GET THE FUCK OUT”, she yelled. I froze. My mind swirled. I can honestly admit, I took the time to let my fellow gamers know that I had to abandon them, “Guys, I gotta go. The Hotel is burning down”. I paused again, and even shut down my desk top computer. I walked over to the door, and stared hard, as I seen my neighbours milling around outside, moving away from the building.
It was though someone had flicked a switch in my head.
I quickly realized that some of my neighbours had left without a jacket, so I peeled back inside, and grabbed an armful of coats, and started to distribute them to those that had none. It was at that time I heard a shout from above my head, and realized in horror, that one of the tenants was waving from the window, black smoke pouring over his head. I had just helped the owner that afternoon, on the roof of the building. The ladder was still there.
I quickly propped the ladder against the window sill, and helped my neighbour crawl down. He turned to me, and gasped, “Tom* is still in his room”. I grabbed the ladder and nearly dropped it in my rush. It was not necessarily heavy, but, it was fully extended and was very difficult to carry, so I half dragged the aluminum ladder around the corner, and wrestled it into position. Tom appeared at the window, holding his beloved dog, so I held the ladder to prevent it front sliding or shifting, as another neighbour shimmied up the ladder and rescued the dog. It was at that precise time that firefighters showed up, and I held on one last time, as Tom descended the ladder.
Quickly, Police and Firefighters moved everyone away from the building. They began to start door to door inspections to search for anyone else. I had to get my cat. I ran back to my room, and sneaked in quietly. I called for Codex**, and couldn't find her anywhere. I grabbed another jacket for myself, and threw my laptop in my carrying case. I turned and seen a Firefighter standing at my door. “Get out of there right now!”, he ordered. I mumbled about trying to find my cat, and took one last longing look around the room. I couldn't see her. I headed towards the door, and the man clad in the SCBA hissed, “Is there anyone else in there?” I told him no, and once again apologized about my cat. I fled the building as thick, choking smoke poured from the windows.
I heard glass smash, above the sirens. I moved over to where the rest of my neighbours were gathering. It seemed so surreal; you could see the disbelief and panic in everyone's eyes. The flashing lights, created a strobe-like effect as it echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings. Brightly-yellow-clad Firefighters rushed about, charging water hoses, and searching for survivors. Police officers moved through the crowd; keeping people away, answering questions with a professional, “We are doing everything we can”. Meanwhile, curious onlookers slowed down to watch the tragedy unfold.
I will admit, that once I knew my friends were safe, and that First Aid responders were on the scene, that I allowed myself the luxury of going into shock. I don't remember much; blurs of imagery, and thought. I watched my door as Firefighters used it as the entrance to the rest of the bottom level facility. I knew that everything I owned was being destroyed; smoke, or tossed aside by those responding to the emergency. I'm not bitter. I know they had a job to do, and I had left my door open when I went back to find my cat. My door was the most easy, and obvious entry to the lowest level of the facility.
I watched to see if my cat would run from the open door. I watched as people started to pack up and leave. I watched, and waited. Where do I go? I cracked open my laptop, and heartbroken, tried to see if the internet from the Hotel still worked. It didn't. I just sat there, on the stone cold steps, and closed the laptop's lid. I tucked it back into the briefcase, and watched the remaining emergency responders clean up the hoses, and set up a crime watch perimeter.
Thank GOD for Victim Services!! This woman walks over to me, and starts to question me. I now realize I was still in a state of shock. I vaguely remember the drive over to the other Hotel; I do remember my jacket smelling like caustic, bitter smoke. She was wonderful! I had a room within 10 minutes, and was told to go relax, and that she would call me in the morning.
I walked into this very fancy hotel room, and threw my stinking jackets on one of the beds. I peeled off my clothes in the middle of the room, and walked mindlessly to the shower. How long I stood in that cleansing warmth, is anyone's guess. Eventually, I got out, and toweled off. I walked naked to the bed, pulled back the covers, and slid into the velvet sheets. I snacked the remote off the table and thumbed through the channels; you cannot begin to imagine my delight at finding “National Geographic Wild”, or as I like to call it, “Everything Must Die Channel”. I eventually passed out, woke up and turned off the TV, and fell back to sleep. I slept horribly.
I woke up and wandered down to the lobby, with high expectations of this “Intercontinental Breakfast” I was promised from the night before. To my disappointment, it was mostly, fruits, packaged yogurt, bagels, and bread. I sat down for a brief moment, and distinctly heard a voice in my head ring out, “You can either make the most of things, or mope about the tragedy in your life”. I lifted my head and stared at the waffle maker. “Doesn't sound so bad”, I muttered to myself. I pushed my negativity to the back of my mind, and stood up. I examined the setup; batter premixed, is dispensed into a cup, and you pour the batter onto two waiting hot plates. Feeling like a little kid, I poured the gooey mess onto the waffle plate and lowered the top plate. Instantly, a beeping noise emanated from the machine. I stood there, watching a digital clock countdown from two minutes, and this flashing light. I knew that it seemed wrong, but I stood there like a little kid. The front desk clerk peers around the corner, “Turn it”. I glanced at the setup, and sheepishly realized it was designed to be flipped in order to cook. I quickly flipped the griddle, and the beeping stopped. The woman from the front desk had disappeared. I smiled weakly at the few people in the room, as I stood there waiting for my waffle to be cooked. I felt displaced. I was embarrassed, and I didn't know what I had done. I realized, that I wore no socks, and my pants were stained from dirt, and God-knows-what. The shirt I wore was still smelling like chemical smoke, and sweat. I felt dirty, even though I was freshly showered. Someone had changed the large flat-screen TV in the common room to “TreeHouse” and “Dora the Explorer” happily embarrassed all the adults who were either lazy, or unwilling to change the channel. It felt surreal.
The waffle was good! I glanced around, and wondered if anyone would notice if I made another. I had a vague concept as to the etiquette required for such an occasion. So, instead of eating, I wandered down to the swimming complex. I'll have to admit, it's not bad! Hot tub capable of melting lead, and a wading pool that a polar bear would enjoy; makes for a great cleansing – good buddies will attest to my melting on the top level on any sauna, and enjoying a brisk roll in the snow. Friday and Saturday, were a blur. I had panging moments of pain, when I remembered that I had lost my cat, and the concept of being helpless (not to mention once again homeless) I turned to relaxing in the hot tub, pool, and watching NGW highlight some of the Earth's best predators. (LOVE this channel – don't let your kids watch!)
Thank GaWd for friends! I would like to take this time to thank those that have helped me; even little things that we take for granted, a razor, socks, a few shirts. We take such things for granted, and I am blessed to say that I have had an outpouring of support from those I love! Thank you all so very much!!
The future is uncertain. It always is. We build up an ideology of security, and sanctity, and reassure ourselves that disaster cannot affect us; perhaps others, but not us. Nothing bad, ever happens to us....... ......I'll admit one thing; when a fire alarm sounds, I am going to pay MUCH more attention. I cringe when I think of my friends, jumping out of of windows, while I ignorantly gamed. I am sorry, that I didn't react in the manner in which I am trained. I am sorry, to those that I could have helped in the primal moments of the disaster! I honestly wish I could back and somehow prevent this horrid event from even happening!! Had I stopped, at any point and investigated the problem, I might have somehow prevented so many people from being hurt and displaced! Had I stopped for one moment, and made certain that the people I have come to respect and love, were safe, instead of ignoring the warning signs; the shouts, running, banging noises, and the eventual WHOOF of gasoline ignited........ .....I might not have this guilt that is weighing on my soul. I can, however, say that I thoroughly vindicated myself, once I took the situation seriously!
On Monday morning, we were allowed back into the Hotel. I stood at the broken doorway of my home, "Codex", I halfheartedly called for my cat. I heard no reply. I sighed and looked around my room. I stepped back, and examined the building again; the windows above and on both sides of me, were smashed, blackened and charred. Curiosity got the better of me, and I headed towards the door leading to the stairwell. I really wanted to see the upstairs hallway.
I opened the door, and gasped at the onslaught of smell. Everything, was black. The bricks that were white before, now matched the carpet, with a fine, caustic layer of chemical ash. Glass cracked under my feet. The carpet on the stairs crumbled under my weight, leaving footprints in the char. I was halfway up the stairs, when I realized the door was closing behind me, so I stopped and closed my eyes. The silence was eerie. This place, that I had come to call home, now smelled like a war-zone. I stood there in the deafening silence, waiting for my eyes to adjust, and feeling the anger, sorrow, rage, and pain that lingered in the smoke that permeated my nose, and the carnage that crunched under my feet.
I opened my eyes, and I could barely make out the stairs in the dim light. I carefully made my way up to the second floor. The window cast a ghostly light, even though it was day. I peered down the hallway. Doors were blackened and tore off their hinges. I coughed as I stood there, not wanting to go any further by myself.
I wonder if Codex is there.
Abandoning the idea of exploring the remains of the upper level, I turned my attention to seeing how my apartment fared. The upper level was devastated, but, a few homes were spared.
It looked exactly the way I walked out.
The acrid smoke stench clung in the air, but the devastation I imagined on Thursday night were highly exaggerated. The door was broken, but easily fixed. There was a tear in the carpet, but, I doubt that is of anyone's real concern at this time. I do know, that my quick thinking of placing a towel at the bottom of the door kept the smoke from pouring in as badly as everyone else around me. I found out later, the Firemen replaced the towel, as I watched them walk through that very door. I am not trying to minimize anything, however, I will admit, I came out very lucky. Better than most.
I feel badly.
People were hurt. My good friends, lost almost everything they owned. Most of MY stuff can be washed, or cleaned. My head swirls, when I realize the implications of how lucky I was. I feel guilty. I smell smoke everywhere. I cry unexpectedly. To be honest, I'm lost.
I found my cat!
"Codex".The tears fell unchecked from my cheeks. "Oh, honey"! A lump swelled in my throat. I could barely see through the tears. "Codex, come see dad". She ran back under the bed. I realized that it had been over 4 days of being trapped in this room by herself; no food, water from the toilet, no heat, with no idea if anyone was coming back to get her. I wiped my face, and opened the cupboard quickly. "Here Codex", I repeated her name, hoping that would draw comfort, "Come get some food". I put the bag down, knowing it was as useful to chase a cat, as it is to chase a woman.
I looked around. The cloying stench of chemical-laden smoke permeated the air. The air was chilled, and I had to remind myself many times, that the lights wouldn't turn on; regardless of how many times I habitually flicked the switch as I walked past. My plants were limp, and dying. I didn't know where to start.
I felt a slight bump on my leg.
Scared, hungry, she found her way to my arms. Her purr made me giddy and cry. I laughed and cried as I jostled her fur, and rubbed her belly. The striped brownish-orange cat writhed in my arms in joy. I abandoned all salvage, and tucked her into my jacket. "I'm taking you to safety sweetheart", I reassured her, as I grabbed her litter box and food dish.
The sound of my voice, kept her calm as I walked through the busy streets of Fort Frances; it wasn't far, but, she struggled a bit when a strange sound startled her; a simple "Hey honey", or, "It's ok, Codex", seemed to work miracles.
To be honest, I wish there was a happy ending.
No one wins, when tragedy strikes. The story doesn't end after the smoke clears. The Voyageur Hotel in Fort Frances will never be the same. Those who's lives were affected, will remember that night, for the rest of their lives. Months from now, the debate between structural damage, and the insurance company, will ultimately decide the fate of the landmark, we all have all come to cherish; great food, wonderful staff, and an owner I am cherished to call friend,
It is with a heavy heart that I pen this. This is only one recount from the tragedy that struck that fateful March evening. There are many......this is mine.
I will miss everyone I have come to love at Reid's Voyageur Inn / Kettles Restaurant. God be with you all in this hard time.