Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Moment of Grace

April 12, 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of a calamitous loss
for Michael and me. This is my recollection of that event.

The most astonishing thing about tragedy is the amount of time a split second can take. Awake, but not up, I heard a sound like a rifle report at 6:10 a.m. and looked up to see a crack of blue sky at the top of my bedroom wall, where it met the ceiling. Without another thought, I shook my sleeping husband.

"Get up! The house is falling in," I yelled.

He got up immediately, without questioning me, and we ran for the third floor, where our 4-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son were asleep. Both of us wore almost nothing, and I grabbed my robe, belt missing, as we ran.

Holding my robe closed with the baby, I started back down the two flights of stairs to the front door. At the first landing, I realized my husband had not followed.

"Come on," I yelled in panic, "we have to get out of here."

For the first time, I could see the doubt in his eyes about my conviction of imminent demise.

"I'm not going anywhere without my pants on," he said categorically.

I replied by taking my daughter's hand from his, and, in my heart, abandoning him to his foolish pride and his fate.

At the front stoop, I stopped to bang on our neighbor's apartment door. I knew that Jack, the husband, would be gone to work, and that Kitty would already be busy with housework. As she opened the door, I warned her that we had to get away because the house was falling in. Kitty gave me an incredulous look and then staunchly refused to leave without her purse. As she walked back into the apartment, I followed, grabbing her telephone to call 911. My pounding heart made my fingers awkward and my voice breathy, but I managed to dial and to ask for the fire department. In the seconds it took for the St. Louis Fire Department emergency dispatcher to answer, I forced myself to calm down so I could speak clearly.

"I live at 2348 South 12th Street and my house is falling in."

I hung up the phone and walked back to the front door. Kitty stood behind me with her purse, urging me to put on her slippers against the cold April air. I had not even realized that my feet were bare. Slipping them on in Kitty’s doorway, I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the antique blue and white tile inlaid on the porch of our reclaimed tenement house. I thought about how the tenants living in the apartment beneath us had just moved out in a pique because we did not want them to keep their mange-ridden dog after we had our new baby. I thought about my husband, whom I had not seen since my flight down the front stairs. And I thought about what I would say when a fire truck showed up in front of my perfectly fine, about-to-be-renovated, 150-year-old home.

I thought about all these things in a flash, and then, in another flash, the wall across the porch from us melted into a black cloud of dirt and grit. I turned away, sheltering my children from the choking cloud and myself from the anguish raining down with the dirt. As soon as the collapse seemed over, I grabbed my daughter’s hand once more, clutched my infant son closer to my bosom, and ran past a 20-foot cascade of bricks that had been my absent neighbor's bedroom and my front yard. I ran down the sidewalk and through our gate into the safety of the empty, dawn street.

Standing on the cold cobblestones, I screamed for Kitty, who had turned back, and screamed again when she still didn’t come, fearing that the rest of the house would collapse any minute. I listened to the wailing of an approaching fire truck. The next-door neighbors ran out to investigate what had thrown them from their beds. It was the collision of three courses of old brick, three stories high, two rooms deep, against their house as our sidewall collapsed across the four-foot gangway we shared with them. The collapse that began with the sound of a gunshot at 6:10 a.m. and finished in a cloud of grit and dirt at 6:14 a.m.

Those four minutes seemed like an eternity to me. They gave me enough time to save what I loved the most, my children. They gave me enough time to warn my dear neighbor, Kitty, who finally came away from the danger after checking her stove. They gave me enough time to call for help and to doubt myself. They even gave my skeptical husband enough time to put on his pants, take the dogs out the back way, and run for his life when the wall crashed into the gangway just as he stepped into it to investigate. Those four minutes gave me enough time to capture a moment of grace that served me well when reality took over.

We had planned to renovate our old, four-family flat into a gracious home with two apartments for income. The architects and professional engineer that we had hired to design the renovation were young, enthusiastic, inexpensive, and, we discovered too late, inexperienced. Our professionals dismissed a small, ground-level separation between the floor and exterior wall, discovered on a recent walk-through of the project, with a simple and easy answer.

"We'll just need to reinforce the foundation with concrete," one of them said.

Unfortunately, everyone underestimated the urgency of the problem, and before the engineer and architects had even planned the remedial measures, that wall collapsed, taking a second wall with it.

30 years should be enough time to recover from grief, but I still choke up when memories of that day surface. My recollections usually stem from news reports of similar tragedies. Once, hearing a woman describe the engulfing, smoke-like wave of dirt and soot she experienced in a wall collapse in Houston, I broke into tears, engulfed myself in the billowing, choking dirt that remains one of my most vivid memories of our loss.

When I look at the tall townhouses springing up around our city, I see my four-year-old daughter’s green bed ruffle fluttering at the edge of a three-story precipice that had been the wall she was sleeping next to only four minutes before it appeared. Entering unfamiliar spaces, I glance up, automatically assessing where danger might lie, and seat myself carefully away from anything suspended from the ceiling, unable to forget that what seems solid can become, in as little as four minutes, a pile of debris. And when I look at my children, now 34- and 30-years-old, I am swept back into that moment, standing on cold cobblestones in a belt-less bathrobe, clutching one child’s hand, and pressing the other child’s swaddled body into my own. I am swept back into that moment when I encountered grace.


Coffee and Kasey said...

"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." My sincere gratitude to you and the forces of mind and nature that spared you!

Unknown said...

You can compare the historical photo (which is probably what the house looked like when you guys bought it), with a recent photo courtesy of google maps streetview.