This is a guest blog written entirely by my mom, Nancy Papa Doran. For another guest blog see: https://writingamandy.com/2018/06/15/whats-in-a-name-by-my-dad-dick-doran/.
It was Thursday night January 23, 2014. After another long day of working at the Baer School and writing notes, I went to sleep around 11. It was 12 degrees outside. It had snowed a little bit a few days ago before, we were in a cold snap and it was not melting.
At 12:30 a.m., (technically, Friday, January 24, 2014) I was awakened suddenly from a deep sleep. There was an odd aroma. I thought it smelled like burnt toast. I noticed that my husband, Dick, was not in bed. I wondered why he was downstairs, making toast. But then I heard him calling me calmly from the bottom of the steps.
“Hey, Nance, Come here.” It didn’t sound too important the way he said it, but I got out of bed, put on shoes but did not even put on eyeglasses. I thought I’d be coming back to bed soon. I dazedly walked downstairs and realized that our smoke alarm was beeping like crazy.
Dick said, “I think a neighbor’s house is on fire.” Aubrey was sleeping upstairs and I called up the stairs for to get up, which she was doing anyway. She came down and was astute enough to grab Joe our dog’s leash and to put it on him. We didn’t know where our cat Kramer was. We got coats and opened the front door, realizing that it was our next-door neighbor’s house on fire–attached to ours, as you know, we live in rowhouses. Our dear-forever next-door neighbors, The Braceys, Mabel and Clyde. Smoke was pouring out of their house. And they were sitting on their front porch. Mabel was wearing a coat over her nightgown and Clyde was wearing a bathrobe and no shoes. They were in their 70s, both had mild disabilities—cane, walker.
Mabel told us that her land-line phone didn’t work, so Aubrey was trying to call 911, although I think they had gotten the signal from the smoke alarm which was attached to a security alarm. None of the other neighbors were out yet and Dick and I realized that we had to help Mabel and Clyde to get off of their porch. Clyde asked me to go in and get his shoes from the living room. I opened their front door and smoke flooded out. I told him I couldn’t get the shoes. Their car was out front and Mabel had the keys. We walked them down the steps, one at a time, Clyde in bare feet (12 degrees out) and got them into their car. Mabel sat in the driver’s seat, started the car and turned on the heat. They sat and watched their home of over 40 years, being destroyed.
There was a brief moment of silence, except for the smoke alarm. But the fire was getting worse. We thought we should hear sirens. Aubrey got a busy signal from 911 at first but then got through. It felt like 15 minutes, but it was really only about seven, and then there were sirens… lots of them, loud, several trucks. The firefighters were very professional.
Aubrey, Joe and I watched and sometimes went into a neighbors’ house to get warm. Dick was pacing all over the block. The firefighters dragged their giant hoses from the trucks. There was a problem with the fire hydrant on the corner because it was frozen (12 degrees out), but they had other water somehow. The fire was raging and soon the flames were coming up out of the Braceys’ roof. The firefighters used their equipment to squirt up there.
We had just gotten our solar panels up there on the roof. I thought they would burn up. (They didn’t, the panels were fine.) The firefighters realized that the fire was also coming out of the back of the Braceys’ house. The next thing I saw was the firefighters carrying their big hoses up onto our porch, opening our front door, and going into our house. I thought the fire was coming through our wall. Dick had several hundred of his favorite books on shelves against that wall. I said to him, “There goes your books.” He surprised me by saying, “They’re only books.”
A little while later, one of the firefighters came out and said that there was no fire in our house. They went through our house so they could fight the fire that was coming out of the back of the Braceys’ house. (With rowhouses, you can’t just walk around to the back.) After a couple of hours, they were finished putting out the fire. Some of them were still in the Braceys’ house, throwing all of their furniture out of their windows. Crashing, sounds, loud banging, broken glass. Chairs, tables, suitcases, beds, clothes, photos, all being thrown out of their windows. Mabel was a meticulous dresser and had some beautiful clothes.
Some of the firefighters came into our house several times to check our walls for hot spots and found none. But the smell of smoke was overwhelming and all-encompassing. We looked for Kramer in the alley, but found that he had been hiding in our basement. By then it was about 4:30 a.m. Mabel and Clyde went to their daughter’s house on Northway Drive. We laid down for a little while but it was kind of hard to breathe. For some reason, I got up and went to work. In shock. At work, I was kind of traumatized. I told some of my co-workers about the fire, and they said, “Well, at least everyone is alive.”
After work, I came home and met Dick and a fire inspector. The inspector said we had to leave. We had no fire damage, just some water drips from the hoses. But the smoke damage was very severe. We had to leave everything, ALL of our clothes, shoes, socks, linens, towels, blankets, pillows, scarves, gloves, books, papers, everything. We had to go to Target to get some clothes to wear really quick. Aubrey stayed with her boyfriend’s mother. Dick and Joe and I stayed with Amanda and Chas for two nights and then our friend Linnea generously let us stay with her for a while, even Joe. Linnea lives a few streets away so we could walk down and see our house and feed Kramer every day before work.
Our house was then taken over by the restoration company. They placed five huge and loud smoke removal air-cleaning fans all over the house and ran them continuously for more than a week. A team of people came in every day and spent hours and hours wiping off everything with special smoke removal cloths–every book, knick knack, picture frame, piece furniture, walls, floors and steps—they wiped everything. We were able to move back in after a couple weeks. About a month after that, the boxes began to arrive. They delivered all of our clothes, shoes, linens, towels, blankets, pillows and all that other stuff—all clean and boxed up neatly with some type of labeling. There were eventually about 80 large boxes brought into our living room. It took forever to unpack them all and there was no time to do it and that’s why I couldn’t work summer school in 2014. Dick’s sister Colleen came to visit that summer to help us with the house.
As for Mabel and Clyde—it turned out that the fire had been electrical. They had a refrigerator in their basement plugged in near the furnace and that night, it sparked and caught the furnace on fire. The fire was carried through their house via the heat ducts. Thank goodness, Mabel and Clyde had excellent fire insurance. They were given a furnished apartment over on Goucher Blvd. in the county as their house was renovated. Over the next few months, their house was gutted and they got new everything. I visited them in their apartment every Sunday while they were waiting for their house. I felt so bad for them having to see all their furniture thrown out and losing all of their clothes and family photos. Mabel said she felt bad about us having the smoke damage but I told her, that’s nothing to worry about. At least we’re alive!
In the ’50s, when our houses were built, builders installed fire walls between each rowhouse, a decision for which we will always be grateful. In the time since the fire, we lost both Mabel and Clyde who were incredible neighbors to us and daycare parents for our daughters. We will never forget them, nor what we went through with them in 2014.