Thursday, 8 December 2011

Up in Smoke.

Two nine volt batteries. For six or more, they cost 64 cents each. Yet, those two missing batteries created incalculable loss.

Everyone is asleep in that Bronx apartment building when, according to fire officials, a cord to a space heater catches fire and ignites bedclothes. The residents of that room run into the hallway to alert other residents, but make the fatal mistake of leaving the door open, thus allowing the flames to spread.

And the smoke detectors: They sit, stuck to ceilings or walls or wherever smoke detectors stick, waiting. What they wait for is a battery so that the burgeoning smoke will cause them to sound their alarm. Sixty four cents. Five minutes of time for installation. Ten lives. Instead of an immediate call to 911, residents try to put out the fire themselves. One resident calls her husband first. After the 911 call, it takes firefighters just over three minutes to arrive.

People toss children from windowsinto the arms of neighbors. Jump themselves. Fire escapes are not required in buildings of this size. The only escape route is the blazing mahogany staircase. Almost 150 firefighters battle for two hours to get the fire under control.

One man, a taxi driver, drives his cab when the fire starts. It kills his entire family; a wife and three small children.

In a matter of hours, this man's reasons for living are gone. How does one make sense of this? A series of human choices and errors which, alone, might not cause such tragedy. Yet, strung together in this sequence, the consequences are tragic.

On this scale the impact of choice is magnified. But what about the small choices we make each day? To drive through the changing traffic light? To ignore the crack in the windshield? To leave the teapot on the stove for just one minute? To wait another day to return that phone call?

Some of us have the luxury of a comfortable life. We can attend to small things as they come up. Others are so overwhelmed by the pressure to survive, they cut corners with these "little" things. But how do any of us know when those minutiae will pile up and cause one great tragedy?

We don't.

What can be done is for us to make our days and lives meaningful to ourselves and to others. We can help people. We can keep our minds and our eyes open. This is the only lesson (besides my having checked my smoke detector) I can glean from this awful incident.

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