It was just after 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning when I woke to screams of “Help.” I roused my husband, and ran downstairs to see someone banging frantically on our sliding glass door. Panicked, I couldn’t get it unlocked so I ran out the front entrance and called 911.
“Someone is screaming for help at my back door,” I said to the dispatcher. “I don’t know what is going on.”
It was then I saw a plume of smoke billowing from my neighbor’s roof. Our homes shared a wall at the Oak Villas Condominiums. A man, whose name I can never remember, was lying motionless on the grass.
“There’s a fire!” I told the woman on the phone. “Someone is badly hurt.”
I gave her our address and hung up. Others were already outside calling for help. I needed to make sure my family was safe.
“John!” I screamed into the doorway. “Get Charlie and come outside. There is a fire!”
I have never felt more relieved than seeing my husband come down our stairs carrying our sleepy-eyed son.
John handed Charlie to me and went to help our neighbor. The man still lay in the grass. His skin, badly burned, was beginning to peel off. They pulled him farther away from the flames.
Another woman screamed in agony at the other side of the parking lot. Her face – now no longer recognizable – was blackened by soot. Her clothes were gone. Someone had wrapped her in a blanket and given her a chair.
It took me a few minutes to realize she was someone I knew. Just the night before, we were chatting outside as her dog did tricks for my toddler. Charlie laughed and giggled as the black mutt sat and spoke on command.
This morning her adult daughters paced our shared lawn in shock. One had cut her foot. The only way to escape from the second-floor window, she said, had been to jump.
I stood barefoot in my pajamas, holding my 2-year-old son tightly to my hip, watching helplessly alongside my neighbors.
There was no place for us to go. The fire trucks had blocked our cars. Hardly any of us had thought to grab our keys or wallets.
I had gone to bed early Saturday night knowing it was my turn to wake up with our son. I planned to take him to the park and the library. Instead, I watched the flames in disbelief while he stomped in mud puddles unaware that most of his toys and the place we called home was now gone.
Days later he would ask for his favorite Mickey Mouse shirt. I had to explain to him that the fire took it, that the smoke, water and debris ruined most of our things. “Not nice fire,” he said with the sort of blunt authority only a 2-year-old can muster. “Give it back.”
I’m not sure if my son will ever get his favorite red T-shirt back. Our home is no longer livable, and our insurance has begun the process of sorting everything we own into two piles: things that can be salvaged, and things considered a total loss.
Even though the latter is the bigger pile, I don’t agree with the terminology.
An event like this can put things in perspective in a way nothing else can. My neighbor, the man whose name I can never remember, died days later in the hospital. My family is alive. It’s not a total loss for us.
We moved to Vero Beach last July. We still know relatively few people in town, yet during this crisis support has come from the most unexpected places.
Volunteers with the Red Cross were at our development within hours handing out debit cards with emergency funds. One of our neighbors, a young man who had grown up here and had family to stay with, gave us his.
The teachers at my husband’s school took up a collection. They brought boxes of clothes and toys the very next day.
My colleagues offered places to stay, food and drinks. While my husband went to school to teach, my boss allowed me the freedom to work wherever and whenever I needed. There were endless errands to run as we began the process of rebuilding our life.
A woman who once showed me an apartment when I was looking for a short-term rental for my mother spent days contacting everyone she knew to help our family find a place to stay. The cleaners at our hotel did our laundry for free. They didn’t even mention the lingering smell of smoke.
A stranger I met through Airbnb online offered her beachside condo at well below market rate just to make sure we had a good place to live while we sorted things out.
“We have to start doing nice things for people,” my husband said a few days later as we drove still stunned around town. He was contemplating making a donation to a field trip scholarship fund at his school. “People are doing a lot of nice things for us.”
Compassion. Empathy. Connection. This is what matters in life. This is why I regret never learning my neighbor’s name.
In times of tragedy, it is people – not things – that bring comfort. We must take care of each other. We must learn each other’s names. Sometimes, our community is all we have.