On Saturday, May 11, the Larchmont Buzz received reports from several readers of a fire at the apartment building at 564 N. Larchmont Blvd. At the time, we published several photos and a very brief account of the incident. But one Buzz reader, Rachel Olivier, had a much closer perspective, and she has generously provided this first-person account of the event, from inside the building.
By Rachel Olivier
On Saturday, May 11, I awakened to my cat Teddy informing me that it was time for breakfast. Stumbling into the kitchen, I went through the motions of feeding him and making my coffee. It was sometime after 8 a.m., maybe even after 8:30.
But this Saturday went a little differently than normal. This was the morning one of my neighbors (allegedly) set his apartment on fire and placed his fellow residents in jeopardy.
That morning, I remember hearing a smoke detector going off, not unusual when someone is trying to do a weekend morning fry up. My own attempts at making homemade tortillas and frying bacon had set off the annoying blare in the past, which usually quit after I opened a window, turned on a fan, and waved a towel or broom around the smoke detector. I was sure that whoever’s alarm it was, it would also go off as soon as a window was thrown open and a fan turned on. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the alarm ceased.
A short time later, I heard raised voices in the hallway. Again, not unusual, but this particular morning, there was an edge to the voices I hadn’t heard before.
I opened the door to see dark gray smoke swirls seeping out of the apartment across the hall. One of my neighbors, Mike, was pounding on the door trying to alert whomever might be in there. Meanwhile, another neighbor, Emilia, was pounding on doors in the hallway on our floor, alerting fellow residents to the possible fire.
“Should I call 9-1-1?” I asked Mike. He nodded, coughing as he continued to pound on the door across the way. Shutting my own door, I got on the phone, mind racing as to what my next moves might be.
The dispatcher answered my call, took my information: smoke and possible fire coming from a unit at 564 N. Larchmont Blvd. After letting me know I was the third or fourth call from the same building she told me get out of the building. Being right across the hall from “ground zero,” she didn’t have to tell me twice.
Hanging up, the first thing I did was head for the cat stroller where it was tucked away under my desk.
Most of the units in our apartment building are studios with a galley kitchen, a couple of deep cupboards, a bathroom, and a large closet nook where the “Murphy” beds used to be. So storage gets creative, and things like cat carriers and emergency supplies tend to go in hard to reach places such as under a desk, covered with other things that need to be stored.
I eyed my cat where he huddled in the middle of the room; he knew something was up. I switched direction from grabbing the stroller out to snap him up before he could disappear under the bed. I clutched his wriggling mass as I pulled out the pet stroller, struggling one-handed to get it open, and tossed him in and slammed down the lid, apologizing the entire time.
I looked around my apartment. I kept waiting to hear the sirens. Where were the sirens? Everything felt like it was taking forever. What else? What was I missing? Was this really the last time I would see the inside of this apartment? Shoes, purse, phone: I knew from emergency preparedness classes and pamphlets and reading about the wild fires that there probably wasn’t time for anything else. It all felt like it was taking too long. I knew I needed to get out now.
I opened the door to a hallway full of dark gray smoke. Mike had run down the hall and was pulling an ax out of the closet. A fire extinguisher was standing next to the door. “Stand back!” he yelled. I stepped back into my apartment and shut the door, hearing the strike of the ax on the door across the hall. Finally, I was hearing sirens, but I was still in my apartment.
The sound of the ax on the door across the hall got louder, and after one really loud crack, I heard it give way in a crunch. Opening my door, I got ready to run out, but was stopped by the wall of black smoke that now filled the hall. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t move any further. Mike and another man from the down the hall, Gabriel, had cloths over their mouths and were alternating trying to point the fire extinguisher at the thickest part of the smoke pouring out of the apartment.
“Get out of here!” Mike took his shirt off and shoved it in my face. I could breathe again and hurried down the hall through the black smoke, pushing the pet stroller before me. When I reached the stairwell I was met with firefighters coming in through the third story window as well as up the stairs (and oddly enough, the resident whose apartment was burning was now also climbing up the stairs). The air was clearer, but it was chaotic with residents getting out of the way of the firefighters and then rushing down the stairs. Teddy was so scared he peed in his stroller and the smell of ammonia wafted up to me as I waited for a chance to get down the stairs.
One of my neighbors, Duke, just stood near the stairs staring at the commotion. He’d just woken up and had no idea what was going on. Another neighbor, Collin, saw I was struggling to get the cat stroller down the stairs and grabbed it to get me down and out of the way faster. One of my neighbors on the second floor, Tara, had two cats and no cat carriers, so Gabriel helped her figure out getting them out with a book bag and a towel. Someone else helped Emilia get her pet cage of cats down the stairs and out of the building while she grabbed her dog.
But finally, after all the chaos, it seemed that almost everyone was out of the building. Fire trucks and engines were pulled up in front of the building, at least four from several different stations, one with a ladder leading to the roof. Another ladder had been placed from the sidewalk up to the second floor. Fire fighters were swarming the roof above the burning apartment, as well as going through the building and checking for anything dangerous. Smoke billowed out of the apartment windows. Several of my neighbors were walking around the sidewalk, some in pajamas, some on phones calling loved ones, some hugging one another, talking to each other, wondering what was happening. Watching the firefighters as they scrambled around the building.
It recalled the morning, just about 18 months earlier, when another neighbor, Dan, had been found dead in his apartment, a victim of depression and suicide. Back then, as a group, we wandered the sidewalk in shock and grief as Dan’s body was taken away, police officers going through his apartment and friends helping his dog, Sylvie, deal with her confusion and misery.
But on this morning, there was anger mixed with the confusion and shock.
The neighbor who (allegedly) started the fire (still under investigation) came back out of the building, looking checked out, face a complete blank, as he walked to his car and drove away. One neighbor tried to stop him, grabbing onto the handle of his car door to keep him from leaving. It was surreal. It was like he didn’t know what was going on. Or didn’t care.
I called one neighbor I didn’t see, Alice. I knew she had a dog and wanted to make sure she was okay. She was safely with her dog somewhere else. Mentally, I ticked off the people I knew on the sidewalk. Were they all here? Were they all safe? What about Mike and Gabriel? Had they been able to get out? How bad would it be? I kind of wondered if I’d end up using my rental insurance after all, the thought making me both comforted and sick at the same time.
Firefighters were no longer behaving like it was an emergency and now seemed to be focused on clean up. Ladders were pulled back in and put away. A couple of the trucks were pulling out, and then they were finally letting us back in.
Someone helped me get my pet stroller back up the two flights of stairs, but there was a part of me that wondered what I might see when I got there. What could I expect? Fortunately for me, my door had closed and latched when I left, keeping out most of the smoke. However, across the hallway, the door was open, smoke and a scorched chemical smell filtered down the hallway. It wasn’t like when the black smoke was pouring out of the apartment, but it was still there, in the carpet, on the walls, embedded in the room across from mine. Firefighters and an investigator were looking over the room. It was coated in white powder. Someone who had seen it before it had been closed off for investigation said that there had been pillows set up around burning candles and that food had been left to burn dry on the stove top, but I didn’t see that. I can only tell you what I saw then.
Time is funny. It was 10:30 a.m. when I got back into my apartment. I felt like it had to be at least noon, if not later. I learned later that the time of the first 9-1-1 call was 9:11 a.m. (I know, weird, right?) and that the fire was completely out by 9:25 a.m. Fourteen minutes that felt like they went on forever. The firefighters credit the work Mike and Gabriel did with the fire extinguisher with helping to suppress the fire until the responders could properly put it out.
A short time later that morning, I was texting my neighbor about getting on with my day, doing some laundry, finding normalcy; but it wasn’t to be. He advised I stay in my apartment because officers were outside the apartment questioning my former neighbor, who had returned out of the blue. He was arrested and later charged with arson. Restraining orders have been served to keep him out of the building, but the investigation is still ongoing.
It has been about a month now. Because the door had to be battered down, it doesn’t quite close all the way, the doorknob mauled, the panels splintered. Even after the carpet and walls had been cleaned the smell blowing into the hallway from the unit was horrible, so one neighbor, Tracy, found a thick plastic tarp. She and Emilia and Matt spent some time with duct tape securing the plastic so the noxious fumes would no longer get into the hallway. They still do, somewhat. And there are times when I still feel the clawing of the black smoke in the back of my throat.
What I learned:
While I have a pretty good system for keeping what I need by the front door and leaving in a hurry, it could be better.
I need a better emergency plan for my cat and me.
I’m really glad I have renters insurance.
It could have been so much worse.
Neighbors really do pull together after a crisis. Just as after Dan died, several of us checked in with each other to make sure we were each okay. It will lessen over time, but it is still good.