Shelter in Place

Since March of 2020, our apartment has been a place of refuge. While outside things might have been uncertain or even dangerous, inside always felt normal. Our family kept on its normal daily routine with just a few less trips outdoors.

Today, though, things are different. They start normally enough with our usual routine: Wake up, meditation, shower, then I make breakfast breakfast and Sage and I play card and board games until about 7:30 at which point we both start our work.

While I’m in a Zoom meeting from 10-11, Daegan heads out to the library and to meet up with a friend for coffee on a patio. At 11:30, the fire alarm goes off. Even this is pretty normal. With around 500 apartments in our building alone the chances of someone burning dinner, a kid pulling a pull station or someone smoking a cigarette in the wrong spot are high. All in all we get 1-2 a month. Like with every other alarm, within a very few minutes the usual six fire trucks show up to investigate and make sure everything’s OK. The usual routine is that after 10 minutes they find the source of the alarm, verify that it was nothing serious, turn off the alarm and leave.

This time, however, after ten minutes, the alarm is still going and now the fire department comes over the intercom: “There is a fire on the forty-second floor. Please remain in your units. Do not use the elevators. Do not use the stairs.” and then a simple, yet shocking sentence: “If you need assistance, dial 911.”

A few minutes later there are sirens. Many more sirens and fire trucks rush in. I go to the website showing the active incidents for the Toronto Fire Department. It’s now a two alarm fire with about ten trucks dispatched including a command centre. Another 10 minutes pass and another rush of sirens come in. I check the website again and it’s now a three alarm fire and over 30 vehicles have been dispatched including aerial trucks, several pumpers, another command centre, a HAZMAT (hazardous materials) unit and a truck labeled REHAB01. Looking this last one up it seems that it’s a mobile toilet and canteen truck. It looks like they’re planning to be here a while – long enough to need meals and washrooms. Outside people are posting to social media:

Suddenly I hear a helicopter approaching closely. It gets close enough that I can see the news channel logo on the side. They get in close and I can hear them for several minutes as they circle the building clearly hoping for shots of disaster: smoke from windows, people on rooftops looking for rescue. Seeing none of that they fly off. I take that as a good sign. Soon after they publish an online article. There’s a fire in an electrical utility room on the 42nd floor. That explains the HAZMAT team – if a transformer blew, there’s bound to be lots of nasty chemicals involved.

By this point I’m starting to get concerned. Not too scared, after all this building is made of concrete and steel. The chances of spread from even just a few floors above us is pretty low. But just in case we put on our shoes. I get my wallet and keys then get down the cat carrier.

As if reading my mind that we might be thinking of leaving, the fire department reiterates their warning over the intercom: “Stay in your units, don’t take the elevators, don’t use the stairs, call 911 if you need immediate assistance.” (Might there be people needing to call 911? What’s happening?)

Daegan is still out of the house. Sage and I debate on whether to message him and risk his getting really worried about us or not to message him and have him see the article and worry about us. I text him letting him know the situation and also to let him know he couldn’t come home. There’s no way for him to get to us safely even if the fire fighters would let him. I send him an e-transfer of money for lunch and reassure him we are safe.

At 12:30 PM I cancel my 1PM conference call. The fire alarms are still whooping continuously in the room and I won’t be able to hear anything. And really, with the noise and stress it’s not like I can pay any attention. I message colleagues at work and let them know I’ll be unavailable for a bit.

I get curious as to what the situation is like outside our door, thinking I might at least assess our possibility of exiting via the stairwell if it comes to it. I open the door and see the entire hall is filled with acrid electrical fire-smelling smoke – from several floors away. This is clearly quite serious. I close the door immediately. The room pressurization was doing its job of keeping the air fresh in our unit even during a fire. I remember that if there’s smoke in a hall you’re supposed to put wet towels under the door so I soak one down and put it there just in case. Not wanting to worry Sage I make a bit light of it. “Yeah, just a little smoke….” but honestly, this is not what I expected at all. If our hall is like this, what is the situation like closer to the fire?

Sage and I go back to the bedroom where we have a door to close to mute the fire alarm a little. There’s nothing we can do but wait for more information and direction so we distract ourselves with low-stakes TV: Family Feud Australia and wait. Every once in a while I check to see if there are more trucks dispatched (there aren’t) and every now and again big clanks come from upstairs. What are they doing up there?

By mid-afternoon another announcement comes over the intercom. “The fire is under control but please remain in your units. Do not use the stairs, do not use the elevators, call 911 if you need immediate assistance.”

It sounds like good news and we message Daegan who is now hanging out at his second library of the day, reading art books and waiting for updates.

At around 3 the alarm stops, followed by an announcement. “The alarm has been silenced. The building is not cleared, please remain in your units.” We hear some noise outside the door, possibly a knock. Are we going to need to evacuate? Sage goes to the door and checks outside. There are firemen there. Opening it she sees that they are there with shop vacs, sucking up tons of the water that had cascaded down the stairwell and into our hall. They seemed relaxed and calm so we also feel a bit better.

Soon after, Sage goes out to check the elevators. They’re not working but she does run into our neighbour who says that they’re fine but that all of the water the firefighters were vacuuming had been running into their house like a river and so all the time we spent watching TV they were mopping constantly to keep their unit from flooding.

Around 6PM we send Daegan some money for dinner and wonder what we’ll do if he’s not allowed home tonight. We resolve to get him a hotel room if needed and figure that out later. As it’s been hours since there’s an announcement I step out of the apartment to check the elevators and see if they’ve been re-enabled. I go press the button and nothing happens. Still disabled. Two young women are sitting in the hall on the other side of the building and they tell me that it’s not working and let me know that everyone on their side of the building is without power or Internet. Only the outlets in the hall near their units work so they’re charging their phones. Soon another man comes by asking if the elevator is working but is struggling a bit with English and I’m not fully sure what he’s looking for. I let him know that it isn’t as another neighbour walks out to check on things also asking. This latest neighbour goes to chat in Urdu with the young women. I ask the man if he has the number for security to see what should be done – can he use the stairs, can he use the elevator? He misunderstands me and thinks I’m going to call them – but I don’t even have a phone let alone their number. So I go to the women chatting in Urdu and ask them in Urdu if they have the number for security. While our neighbour goes back to her apartment the man turns to me: “You speak Hindi?” “Haan, bilkul!” I say and he begins telling his story so quickly I can barely keep up. He had just moved to the 42nd floor next door to the fire and just got home from work to find out what had happened. Now they’re telling him everyone on his floor must leave for at least a week but he’s not even sure how to get out with the elevators broken. Finally, he calls the security guard who tells him that the firefighters will come pick him up in the elevator and take him out. So at this point I now know that the east side of 20 floors of this building – 100 or so apartments are now without power. All of the apartments on the 42nd floor must be evacuated for at least a week and those without power are also recommended to find another place to stay.

Knowing that the firefighters are operating the elevators, escorting people home, I message Daegan and let him know he can come home. While he’s on his way a security guard comes to the door giving us official notice of the situation. At least a week without power for the other side of the building. We are incredibly grateful at our luck that despite all of the stress and drama of the day, the worst seems to be over and life can go back to normal.

It was a big enough deal that late that night the mayor and fire chief arrive to speak to the media:

I’m really grateful, of course that not only are we OK, everything is relatively normal for us this morning. Though just outside the door things are still working back to normal. The carpets are still very wet, and there’s some new machinery installed:

Looking online I see that these are construction grade HEPA filter units designed to filter the smoke and other particulates from the air. They haven’t started yet, likely waiting for most people to be awake as they look quite noisy.

We’re also incredibly grateful for the response of the city. During the worst of it, knowing that 34 trucks were outside to help – anywhere from 30-100 people ready to keep us safe was so reassuring. Those same people got the fire out quickly and got things as much back to normal as could be done in a short time. I’ve also read that between the property management and individuals themselves, everyone displaced by the fire has found temporary housing. Fingers crossed that they’re back home again soon.

cover photo from Robert Taylor from Stirling, ON, Canada, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons License

11 thoughts on “Shelter in Place

  1. I thought of you as soon as I got the notice at work. And reminding you that I am a phone call away. I would have picked up Daegan and he could have stayed with me. You folks too if you had been displaced.
    416-###-####.

    1. OMG – that’s really lovely and so good to know. Thanks, Faye! (By the way, I’ve put your phone number in my phone and redacted it here. Who knows who you might hear from otherwise!)

    1. Thanks – it was a little scary but I’m really glad as well. Not only that – that even the people on the same floor are fine. That must have been especially scary.

    1. It was pretty much confined to one floor but in a critical piece of electrical infrastructure so it knocked out power for half of over 20 floors. It was a little scary here but I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like on 42. Fortunately a lot of people were at work so while it was a surprise when they got home, they avoided the scariest bits.

    1. A little scary but mostly things seemed OK until I saw the smoke in the hall and even then it wasn’t coming in the room. The huge response was helpful. Knowing there were so many people focused on keeping us all safe was hugely reassuring.

      Mostly I keep coming back to that helicopter. How ghoulish was that – to come looking for suffering just to get viewers?

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