Columbia House Fire

I woke up around 3:15am on Thursday, August 23rd to the sounds of frantic activity coming from my upstairs neighbor.  Something was wrong.  I can’t remember exactly how I noticed, but it quickly became evident that there was a fire on the back porch.  I made an announcement to my roommates to get up and leave the building, called 911 and got dressed.  The police were first to arrive – just moments after the call.  I watched from my window as the officer sped down the street, leapt out of his vehicle and then charged towards our building – commanding us to leave as he ran.  I quickly grabbed my wallet, laptop, guitar and amp.  By the time I made it down the hall there were half a dozen police officers in our building checking each floor and helping us out.

The next ten hours melted into one long scene.  We watched the Cambridge & Somerville Fire Departments approach and attack the blaze with skill and determination.  The fire remained at the back porch area for a while, and then then it moved inside the building.  Soon after that, the roof caught fire, and then it collapsed.  From there I couldn’t keep track of what was happening, and at the time, I didn’t know how far the fire had spread.  Seven fire trucks were on hand.  Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were poured into the house.  The street flooded.  We watched.

The Cambridge Fire Department has an amazing Emergency Management service that helped us through the evening with blankets, water and information.  The Red Cross made hotel arrangements for us, gave us some money to buy clothes and supplied us with toiletries.  We were being updated constantly about the state of the firefight and what was to happen after the fire was fully extinguished.

As things calmed down and the fire diminished, we were informed that we could not go back into the building.  Throughout the evening, there was speculation that we would be let in one by one with a firemen escort, but when it came down to it, the house was too dangerous.  The first floor had six inches of water in it and the ceiling had collapsed in a few places.  We were asked if anyone had any glasses or medication that needed to be retrieved and were told to make a “treasure map” of anything that we wanted from our rooms – the firemen would take this map and rescue what they could.  I took a piece of paper, but I didn’t have a pen.  I stood there for a while looking for one, but I couldn’t ask anyone. In my heart I was too terrified to draw a map of my apartment.  I saw how much water went into that building – I didn’t want what I already had lost.  As I stood with my paper and no-pen, the firemen started bringing out our instruments.  They told us that as the fire was burning, they had lifted our instruments to higher ground (as to not sit in the water).  They came out with my roommates’ upright basses, banjos, saxophones and then they came out with three of my guitars.  I was so overwhelmed, grateful and terrified to see what they looked like.  The gig bags were soaked and heavy, but when I looked inside, the guitars were in good condition.  Most of the water had been absorbed by the case.  I couldn’t believe it.

I could tell it was noon because all the TV crews went live.  It was soon after that things really died down.  We moved our instruments to a friend’s house nearby and then went to the hotel.  After a quick shower and a bite to eat we all headed to the mall to buy underwear and tee-shirts.  I can’t remember what time I went to bed, but when I finally closed my eyes, all I could see was the fire.  I spent nearly half the day watching the building slowly burn.  It was the strongest image in my mind.

The next day I drove back to Central Square to watch the third floor be taken down by a wrecking crew.  Because the roof had collapsed, the fire had burrowed itself within the structure, the only way to stop the smoldering was to remove the entire floor – otherwise it could continue to burn for weeks.

Around this time, my friends’ home had been turned into “The Hub” – the central meeting place for fire victims, food and donations.  Valerie Thompson, Karin Webb, Molly Zenobia and Cos had spearheaded a relief effort on Facebook that managed information and donations.  Soon their living room was filled with clothes, toiletries, suitcases and food.  It was an amazing display of community support and a much needed separation of focus as none of us fire victims could make any sense of anything in those first few days.

As I write this, most of us are still trying to find permeant housing.  We are safe and have resources for the short term.  I have enough clothes to last me a week and two pairs of shoes.  My TimeStamp CDs arrived in the mail and I have enough gear to play gigs.  I lost an incredible amount of “stuff & things” in the fire, but I feel like I have so much.  All of my worldly possessions can fit in my car, and that’s okay.  Loosing so much has only emphasized what’s really important.  Elephant Tango Ensemble lost all of their puppets, I lost a lot of instruments & gear, but the place that births creativity, ideas and passion was untouched by the fire.  A house may have been destroyed, but the community has only grown stronger.

Thank you to the friends and strangers who have helped us in the past few days.  It was been an overwhelming but amazing experience to feel so much love and support.  I don’t realize what I have lost.  I can only see what I have, and that is truly beautiful.  Thank you.

There are fundraisers and concerts coming up, and donations are being collected online.  For info on the recovery process please visit:

Columbia House Fire
Tagged on: