Our office building caught fire. While we were in it.
It seems events leading up to the moment of ignition had been occurring for a few hours, as there had been an electric-like odor in the copy room that morning. Staff thought it was a dirty air-conditioner filter and changed it. It wasn’t the air-conditioner though. Apparently a small vent fan in the ceiling shorted out and dropped some sparks onto the paper supplies in a closet. After the building finally ignited, it all began moving pretty fast.
Our secretary had walked into the copy room and noticed a glow emanating from under the closet door where the office supplies were kept. No alarms had been triggered by the smoke detectors, so she pulled the fire alarm box on the wall and yelled out “This one is for real”. Kudos to her quick thinking. Amidst blaring alarm horns, a very strong electrical odor suddenly filled the building. There was a loud pop and the power went off.
Feeling a tiny bit smug because I remembered to grab my purse and cell phone, I headed out the front door and made a direct call to 911 to follow up on the alarm. Once outside, staff frantically began moving their cars away from the building. One woman was standing there lamenting that she had left her purse and phone inside. I was so glad I had mine – until I reached into my purse for my car keys – only to realize I had left them on my desk in front of my computer screen. My car, still fairly new, was parked right by the front door, right where the firemen had to be entering. With visions of them dragging hoses and axes across and through my vehicle, I turned to go back in and retrieve my keys, only to realize this would be foolish and impossible. Within a minute the building had filled with thick smoke. There was no going back inside.
They say you should drop to the ground to evacuate a building filled with smoke, as smoke rises. Of note, the fire chief mentioned that the heavy smoke in this building lay clear down to the floor. It was rather impressive. By now our paper supplies and the ceiling into the attic were in flames. I did a mental head count of which staff were there. Everyone had evacuated safely. Then I stood off to the side and anxiously watched the firemen in respirators go in and out of the building, throwing chunks of burning copy paper and sheet rock out into the parking lot and hosing it down….right next to my car. To their credit, my car remained unscathed and eventually someone went in and retrieved my keys for me.
In the scheme of things, this was a no-big-deal fire. Had it been a Sunday with no one around and not a Monday afternoon workday, the building probably would have burned down. As it was, the flames damaged only a small portion of the building. Most of the damage was from smoke, with the offices in the front of the building getting it the worst. Since my office is directly across from the copy room, it served as a direct breezeway for the smoke to filter through towards the window. Subsequently, everything in there was totally permeated. Afterwards, when I went back in to retrieve a few items, just being there for a few minutes was enough to give you a head ache and left you smelling like last night’s campfire.
We have fire safety in-services at my place of employment and I have seen the videos of how quickly a piece of furniture can ignite, how a room can burst into flames, how a stove fire can engulf an entire kitchen in mere moments, about flashback. Seeing how quickly our building was enveloped once the actual ignition occurred, I am humbled and awed. I have a new respect for fire, and feel deeply for those who have been touched and lost property (much less lives) in situations much worse.
So we are displaced. Staff has been dispersed to different outposts and I am in a makeshift office in a building next door while we wait for insurance adjusters to assess, fire/smoke restoration teams to begin to clean up the building, and reconstruction from the damages to begin. It is a slow process. We don’t have access to our hard files at the moment. Many staff are working out of their cars. For the first few days we could only communicate by our own cell phones. After a few days, our IT department hooked us up with computers and an office phone again, but we are still walking around in a daze.
The workplace is home for a significant part of your waking life. I have been at this job for a very long time, so I have a “work nest” in addition to a “home nest”. Now that we are disrupted and displaced and the nest is gone, everything feels a bit off-kilter. Achieving simple daily activities has become more challenging. Staff are expressing that they are disoriented and stressed. We have had to become more resourceful and let some things go. Lingering with the smoke, there is tinge of depression in the air.
In the meantime, it is expected that business will continue as usual.