By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
I was stretched out on my futon reading Harpers, the cat asleep on my stomach, when the fire alarm in the hallway went off. I have often heard fire alarms accidentally triggered, so at first I didn't think much of the sound except how annoying it was. Then I looked up from the magazine and noticed thick black smoke as it rolled in like a thunderhead from beneath the door. The next instant, as I stood inside my one-room Deep Ellum apartment in T-shirt, boxers, and sock feet, a single thought hit me with anvil-force: "Oh, shit--I don't have a fire-escape plan."
That was the situation on the morning of January 13, 1999, at 10:15 a.m. Behind me were two windows that overlooked a 20-foot drop onto an empty concrete parking lot. My fear of heights had seemed irrational every other time but now--taking the plunge could easily result in a broken neck or back. Not that my right brain was firing every piston at that moment. Frantic noise interference scrambled the operation: A young woman across the building screamed as if she were being stabbed; a young man who'd just jumped out of his window atop a parked car, his forehead and cheeks seared, yelled, "Get out! Get out!" from the pavement outside. My cat moaned and screeched in the corner; she wouldn't come to me when I called her, and she was quickly obscured by smoke. The shrill whistle of the fire alarm bored into my head like a surgical laser. The smoke wasn't leisurely hazing up the room, but tumbling and billowing across the floor in black cauliflower shapes (the 6-foot runner in the hallway that was set ablaze had a rubber underside, which explained the dramatic carbon content).
I grabbed my telephone, threw open one of the windows, and called 911 with my head thrust out. During the next 10 years--wait, 10 minutes--I had to shove my body halfway out the window because the smoke was pouring into the morning air from behind me. It wasn't the fire department that rescued me, but three Mexican-American construction workers with a ladder who'd noticed the smoke and gotten there before the firefighters. They had also just helped Meredith Pearson, the screaming woman in apartment No. 3, out of her window at the front of the building. (She had just enough time to pull on her nearest T-shirt, which featured the image of Pee Wee Herman, thumb held aloft, over the caption "Masturbate!") At first, a sobbing Meredith refused to leave her own cowering feline, but was finally talked down.
The three heroic strangers with the ladder had to coax me down too, but not because my cat wouldn't budge--beloved as she was, animal rights were not foremost in my mind. I was terrified of the drop and equally petrified at the realization of what I'd have to do to get down--close my eyes and hold my breath, turn back around to face the acrid, inky onrush, blindly stick the lower half of my body out the window, and find the ladder rungs with my sock-covered feet. Miraculously, after several shouted refusals, I managed to do it, the whole time trying to ignore the piercing alarm and the shrieking cat and the smoke coating the burning inside edges of my nostrils. I clung to the reassuring calls of the construction workers, one of whom came part of the way up and offered me a hand.
The safety of being outside the smoke of the Walton Street Apartments didn't feel safe, just surreal, another jump-cut to an extremely different mood. One minute, you're confabbing with your cat and reading a magazine, and the next, you're dazed and soot-covered and wandering in your dainties among firemen, investigators, curious onlookers, and your fellow dazed, sooty survivors. A burn on the forehead of Adam Armstrong, the guy in No. 1 who'd jumped atop the car, was second-degree. Meredith had cuts and bruises, but that was all. The entire time I was examined by the medics in the ambulance, I muttered, "My cat's dead, my cat's dead." Meredith, assuming the same, was barely consolable. But we were lucky there too. When the blaze was extinguished, firefighters burst inside to discover both animals alive, shaken but able to crouch low enough to the ground to survive. Even so, the caregivers were concerned about them. One of those never-to-be-forgotten fire-scene moments: The medic offered to use the oxygen face cup on my cat if she showed signs of inhalation (she did not). Another one for the scrapbook: Capt. Wally Graves, the jovial but no-bullshit veteran investigator for the Dallas Fire Department, pulled out a cigarette inside the charred, scarred, puddle-filled hallway of my apartment building and said, "Anyone got a light?" He was trying to jar Adam and me from our blackened stupor to ask Armstrong a serious question, one that, even when it was finally answered, would propel us through months of testifying and waiting to testify: "Who wants to get you?"
Graves determined that the Walton Street Apartments, though very old, were fire-code compliant. With no potential heat source, chemical or electrical, near the rubber-matted, six-foot rug outside Adam's apartment where the blaze began--coupled with the obvious fact that the flames had rapidly increased to consume the entire landing and beyond--investigators determined pretty quickly that the cause of the fire was suspicious.