As vice president of her youth group, my 16-year old daughter Melissa can often be found co-leading chapter meetings or lending her creative skills to a committee of teens planning a calendar full of special events. And so it was on Thursday of last week that I found myself, once again, on my way to the community center where the meetings are held, ready to fulfill my end of the carpool bargain to pick up Melissa and her friend Gabby and drive them home.
With an Olympic-size indoor poor, comprehensive fitness complex, a preschool, a conference center and dozens of classrooms, the community center is an impressive facility, used by hundreds of people on any given weekday evening.
Arriving early as I usually do, I loitered in the lobby, flipping through some brochures to pass the time until the meeting ended.
I didn't pay much mind to the middle-aged man who walked through the lobby following his workout, until he paused in front of the information desk and announced that he smelled smoke.
To verify this seemingly odd claim, I took a deep breath and, indeed, inhaled the distinctive odor of a recently lit match.
The elderly woman at the information desk called security, her nonchalant manner demonstrating no sense of urgency, no indication that she had detected the ominous scent that now permeated the entire lobby.
My thoughts turned to Melissa!
I know from experience that my daughter tends to linger a bit longer after the official chapter meetings have ended, taking advantage of a few moments to debrief with the other board members. However, as my mind began to make sense of the impending danger, I determined that on this night there would be no such lingering....I had to get her out of the building!
I propelled my out of shape body up the stairs faster than I thought possible. Here, the smell of smoke became noticeably stronger, leading me to the incorrect conclusion that the fire had started on the second floor.
The second floor!
The floor that played host to my Melissa and her unsuspecting friends!
I raced down the hall, becoming more and more frantic with the passing of each classroom. Finally, when I arrived at the far reaches of the second floor corridor, I burst through the door, an emotional wreck of a mom, ordering Melissa and her friends to evacuate because the building was on fire!
They didn't need to be told twice.
Together we raced toward the stairs, banging on classroom doors as adults and teens alike poured into the hall, all striving to reach the safety of the fresh air that beckoned from beyond the building's front doors.
Smoke continued to fill the corridor. As Melissa and her friends descended the stairs, the fire alarms finally began to reverberate throughout the building, providing proof positive to anyone who doubted the danger that they needed to GET OUT!
We tore through the lobby, only to witness a community center employee attempting to calm the masses, assuring everyone that the fire had been extinguished and they could come back in. Not wanting to take any chances, I yelled for Melissa and her friends to ignore this attempt at reassurance and to keep going!
Shaken, but unharmed, Melissa and Gabby followed me to the car, where, during the drive home, we wondered aloud what had started the fire, and if the building had gone up in flames.
Fortunately, it had not.
Yet, unanswered questions remained.
1. What started the fire?
2. Why did it take so long for someone to activate the alarm?
3. Why did an employee tell people it was safe to return to the building, when the large facility was still filled with toxic smoke?
The next day I called the community center, expressing my disappointment at how the staff had handled the emergency. A senior member of the community center's administration listened to my call with grave concern. Tucked away in a board meeting in one of the classrooms on the second floor, he too, had born witness to the events of the previous evening.
The fire had started on the first floor in the preschool kitchen, and had indeed, been extinguished almost immediately. However, he agreed that the alarm should have been pulled the moment the flames had sparked, and that nobody should have been allowed back inside until the fire department - not a member of the community center staff - gave the ok.
He assured me that the community center will use the fire as a terrifying wake up call for much needed emergency response training so that if it ever happens again, the staff will know what to do...and what NOT to do.
Thankfully, there were no injuries, but I shudder to think what might have been if the fire had not been contained. Because in a fire, waiting ten minutes before pulling an alarm could mean the difference between life and death.
To learn more about fire escape plans, visit the U.S. Fire Administration.
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