The Holiday Season of 1998 was an especially powerful one for me. It came after a deadly fire which occurred in my building in New York City on the upper west side. Perhaps you heard of it. The event was in all the media.
The fire started in the apartment of Macaulay Culkin’s mother and siblings on the 19th floor and quickly spred throughout the 52 floors, tragically killing 4 people.
I share this story with you – for as a mother of only 7 months and a meditator of over 25 years – my work, the calm, the angel of grace: all came together to allow me to be in the moment and do the good and right thing.
Remembering my spirit saved the lives of 3 others, my baby’s and my own.
As a person who is a wellness professional and a relaxation expert, I give an example of its power – not in some dream world but – in the world of stark reality, in the midst of crisis and danger.
My 7 month old daughter and I were home, in the building on the 33rd floor. I love our apartment. The view of the sky and the park is wonderful and a great antidote to the bustle of the city. My husband and I lived in the building for 7 years, 5 in our present one.
I had changed and fed Madelaine Sara. We were in the middle of our morning when I smelled smoke. At first, I thought it was our toaster for I had just made toast and eggs for my breakfast. But it seemed to be coming from the outside.
I opened the door and saw smoke in the hallway. I quickly closed it and tried calling the front desk. To no avail. The intercom wasn’t working and the phone line was busy. I then heard some fire alarms in the hall.
It just seemed so unreal. Who believes that they’ll ever be in such an ordeal?!
I opened the door to double check. Yes, indeed, the hallway was quickly filling up with smoke.
Then I suddenly saw 3 people – choking and coming towrds me. I quickly took them in. The group was 2 women and a man.
Clearly, a dangerous situation was at hand.
I put on my coat, dressed the baby in hers, grabbed the phone and we all ran out to my terrace.
It was around ten o’clock. The phone rang. It was my mother. She had been watching morning television when the news broke in with the story of the fire. As she watched, she became horrified as she realized it was my building.
Of course, she was very frightened and called immediately. I assured her that her new granddaughter and I were safe, now on the terrace. We stayed in touch.
I also called my husband but he was out of the city. His secretary called 911 for us to alert them that we were on the terrace in case they had to evacuate us. I had her call because I didn’t know how long the phone would continue to work.
I didn’t want Gary, my husband, to know until he came back. There would be nothing for him to do but worry. Of course, he called when he returned. He came home later that day and entered as soon as he could.
Thank god for the terrace. For soon afterwards, the apartment filled with smoke, so darkly that we could not look in from the terrace.
I really do not know how we would have survived if we had to stay in the apartment. It was completely filled with thick smoke.
There were two chairs on the terrace. I sat in one holding the baby next to me and Priscilla, the younger woman, sat in the other. She was still very frightened even though she and, as it turned out, her parents were breathing fresh air.
I concentrated and prayed, believing in the Divine’s Grace.
But my mind also filled with what if, what if there is fire behind the smoke, what if we would not be safe on the terrace any longer … how would I save Madelaine Sara?
How would they ever be able to evacuate us 33 floors up?!
And as I looked down on my daughter – only 28 weeks old – sleeping calmly in my arms, I again breathed deeply, focused my mind and trusted in the Divine.
Priscilla started to cry out and I gently turned to her and told her to be quiet and pray. She did as she rocked herself. She also called her husband, Dan, at his office.
Her parents were standing and told us about the scene on the street. Many fire engines and ambulances had arrived. Sirens blaring, red lights flashing. The surrounding streets had been cordened off.
People who lived in the building and heard about the fire had hurried home, forming a crowd. Of course, they could not enter. Also, there were some people making their way out of the building. By this time, Dan had also returned and called to calm Priscilla.
Firefighters were running in and out. We could also see them reading the blueprints of the building. Helicopters were flying over head, hovering.
Fortunately, my neighbor above heard us and lowered blankets and clothing. It was bitterly cold. I was still in my nightgown and also needed a hat for the baby. In the rush to get outside, I couldn’t find it. Richard was very kind and also gave us water for Priscilla, Lucia and Helio were parched from being in the smoke filled hall and after a while I, too, was getting thirsty.
I felt like we were on the Titanic. It turned out that I had been used to save Priscilla who lived down the hall and her parents who had literally just arrived from Brazil a few hours earlier for the holidays. They could not get into their hotel room so early in the day and had come to see their daughter.
They had seen flames and, in panic, had run out of Priscilla’s apartment. In the rush, she had left the keys inside. They were locked out and had walked down the hall, frantically searching for an exit. Fortunately, I had opened my door a second time to check the situation and saw them.
Destiny, karma, fate…
As Priscilla calmed down, she looked around and realized that there were a lot of people standing on their terraces. She could see Jill, my neighbor across the hall, alone on hers. Jill was very scared and it was difficult for her because she was alone. We tried to call to her.
We stayed on the terrace for almost 2 hours. Finally, the smoke was subsiding. Helio covered his mouth with a hankerchef and ran into the apartment, opening windows to facilitate the smoke’s dispersment.
We re-entered. The tv was still on. The noon news was covering the fire.
It was then that we heard that 4 people had died from smoke inhalation.
In fact, one of the women was a secretary on our floor. She had panicked, took a stairwell to escape and sadly, was overcome by smoke.
We silently looked at each other.
The angel of death had passed over us…
Five days later there was a memorial for the four who had perished at the corner church. Hundreds attended. People spoke: telling stories about them, sharing their own experiences, voicing their concerns for our current safety.
I was inspired to share my story and also lead a healing meditation to help all of us feel some peace.
I only pray no others need go through this of experience.
In fact, we also formed a tenants’ association to try to pass new laws for fire safety in New York City.
And so, there it is – a lesson in the importance of being centered in your spirit all the time: in the happy, the sad and even the dangerous times.