June 22, 2014

When You Can't Call 9-1-1

A week ago Friday, I had just laid down for an after-lunch rest when I heard my next-door neighbor Steve at our door, his voice frantic.

“Where’s your fire extinguisher?”

Luke showed him where it was, and he was out the door as I was emerging from the bedroom, wondering what the emergency was.  One quick glance out the door and I could see it was bad.  Flames were shooting out of the storage room of Steve’s house next door. 

In the U.S., you’d pick up a phone and dial 9-1-1 then stand back and let the professionals do their job.  But there’s no 9-1-1 here.  I thought briefly about trying to stretch our water hose to their house, but I could tell by the size of the flames that it would be worthless.  David grabbed a bucket and ran next door.  I ran closer to the Richards’ home in time to see Jodi and their two kids emerge, walking calmly through the yard.  Steve came out of the house and threw down the fire extinguisher, which had proven totally useless.

I got out my phone and called our MAF program manager, Mike, and quickly told him what was going on.  David had just run out of the Richards’ house and asked to talk to him.

“Mike, we’re not going to put this out.”

And then I realized we would be watching a house burn down.

Earlier in the day, the power had gone off, as it frequently does.  I suspect it's because I had decided to do a meal in the crock-pot that day. What’s up with me and the crockpot? Every time I use it, it’s like I’ve called the power company and said, “Hey, mind turning off our power all day? Awesome, thanks.”

So I had turned on our generator at lunch time so the kids could use the toaster, and to give my crockpot some time to come to life and simmer.  Apparently the Richards had also turned on their generator and were just finishing their lunch when they noticed the power went off.  Steve went to check on the generator and was met with an inferno.

Our yard became the safe hangout for kids.  The hordes began arriving – curious Papuans, other expats, our MAF guys loaded to the gills with fire extinguishers, even a few of the local drunks.  Everyone wanted to help, but the fire quickly raged out of control.

The Richards’ house was part of a duplex, and one of the oldest buildings on Pos 7.  Constructed from ironwood, it dates from World War 2, and was one of the first houses used by missionaries up here.  The other side of the duplex was a guest house for two families currently on home assignment.  Acting quickly, many helped to empty the other side of the duplex of its furnishings before the fire reached it.

It’s worth noting that I am probably NOT the person you want with you in a crisis.  I try to do my best to hold it together and do what needs to be done, but what I really want to do is crawl into a fetal position and cover my head until the crisis is over.  I’m wimpy that way. 

After my call to Mike (my major contribution to the firefighting effort), I stood on the sidelines and offered drinking water and wet towels to the men battling the fire.  I don’t know how we got through with no major injuries, but thankfully we did. 

Eventually a fire truck did show up.  I don’t know who tried to call them, but I heard that the number they used was out of service, so I think someone had to physically go to the fire station to report the fire.  And there are no fire hydrants here, so once the truck is empty of its water it has to go back down the hill and get more.  So time-consuming. 

Workers from the international school came over with a water tank and hose, and they seemed more efficient than the fire brigade.  Eventually, I think everyone saw that efforts to stave the fire were hopeless and we stood and watched it burn to the ground. 

Through the afternoon and evening, people kept stopping by to take a look, to offer sympathies, and to shake their heads at the sheer devastation. 

Amazingly a few items were saved from the Richards’ home: their refrigerator, tv, and stove got pushed out in time, and when Steve sifted through the ashes the next day he found some of Jodi’s jewelry as well as some ceramic Christmas decorations.

But that’s it.

The Richards have had a phenomenal attitude through it all.  The expat community has been wonderful in reaching out to them, providing food, clothes, and household items.  They are starting over from scratch.  If you’d like to help them, you can go here to donate.