An accident waiting to happen singes all

City Diary

City Diary: Jonathon Fuqua

March 07, 2001|By JONATHON FUQUA

IN MY DREAM, I heard fire engines. We hear them a lot. We live off Harford Road, and sirens whine all night. But this was different. This siren grew in volume, filling my mind, driving me from sleep.

Dazed, I climbed from bed. I didn't notice that a murky haze had filled our room. Stumbling to a window, I looked out toward the spinning lights, and there, two houses down, smoke billowed from my neighbor's windows. Because we live in a row, I wondered if the adjacent home would save ours. I thought, "Will we lose everything, too?"

Turning, I yelled to my wife, "Glen's house is on fire!"

Startled, she jumped from bed and rushed into our 4-year-old daughter's room. I ran down our smoky hallway to awaken my in-laws, visiting for a long weekend.

A surreal feeling seized me. Downstairs, smoke hovered like a tattered mist. I found boots for my wife to wear, but she already wore shoes. I asked if my daughter would be warm enough, but she was rolled in blankets and a bathrobe.

Opening the front door, we found a frenzy of motion, sound and odor. Waves of water rolled down our sidewalk, carrying hunks of burned debris. An assemblage of firemen strapped on air tanks.

Turning, we scurried out back, into our yard as our immediate neighbor's windows exploded from the heat. Our daughter sat in quiet shock. My in-laws paced, watching the scene with shaky knees. Mostly, though, we remained eerily calm.

Wielding axes, firemen hacked through smoking, broken windows. A neighbor screamed about her cats, and I turned and studied the owner of the blazing home. Covered in soot, groggy and slow moving, he had barely made it out alive. And instead of feeling sympathy, I was irate.

A few years ago, his parents died unexpectedly and, shortly thereafter, his younger brother moved out. Though he has four siblings, they couldn't agree on what to do with the home, so he stayed, which was fine. He was friendly and seemed to care about our block. People consoled him, offering help and support. However devastated or unhinged by his losses, he was going nowhere fast.

Over the year, the house deteriorated. He promised to improve it before losing his job and disappearing into the darker corners of himself. His new friends looked like junkies. Every so often, he begged us to forgive him, told lies, began walking around in a miasma.

The situation got out of hand, and he disappeared. We were told that he had gone to live with a brother. We were told that the house would be sold. But it never was, and he returned.

Another year passed, and the place declined. He began selling something from his kitchen. The police put an end to it. We asked his family to help us, but they held up their hands. What could be done? When the house was robbed, the police returned, holding their noses when they slipped through the door. With each step, beer bottles tumbled at their feet.

Everyone knew it would end badly. Everyone knew that the house would catch fire or simply topple. We even imagined worse. But we couldn't do anything. Then it burned.

People could have died. The entire row's property values have plummeted. Days after the fire, my daughter drew a picture, calling it, "Planet Earth On Fire." She's never named her art before. That burned hulk will remain, a blight on our tightly knit block, a hole in our hearts.

So on the night of the fire, my jaw tightened when I saw my neighbor. Covered in soot and high enough to start an inferno, he watched and apologized as if he hadn't mowed his lawn for weeks.

It was much worse than that, though. He has left us a problem that we will have to resolve.

By allowing their brother to destroy their home, by ignoring everyone's concerns, his family destroyed our homes, too. They have shaken our families and taken bites from our life savings.

How often does this type of thing play out in a city of rows and neighborhoods? How often do voices go unheard, resulting in devastation? Where are the safety nets? What will happen next to a once proud block of homes and families?

Today's writer

Jonathon Fuqua, a writer, is author of "The Reappearance of Sam Webber" (Bancroft Press, 1999), a winner of the 2000 Alex Award and a pick by several organizations as best book of the year for teen-agers. He lives in the Mayfield neighborhood of Baltimore City.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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