Yesterday was a very lucky day for me. I could have been burned, disfigured, or even worse, died.
I’m writing this now because I read an article on trauma that my lovely friend, Jess, gave me and it suggested one of many ways to deal with trauma is to write about it. So I’m going to write about it and I’m going to vent and hopefully this will help, because I’m struggling a little.
Yesterday I was scheduled to work audits in St. Pete. I don’t normally work in St. Pete. I was filling in for someone else who’d taken vacation. It was a high bill audit and sometimes those can be really annoying, because the customer is just lying or unwilling to sacrifice any creature comforts to lower their power bills. High bill audits are hated by all of us.
When I got to the home, an old 4-unit apartment building, I met the owner, Tom, and his on-site maintenance man, Jose. They were both very nice, and the landlord seemed very concerned with his tenant’s bills and seemed willing to do anything he could to help lower them, including paying for any necessary repairs. That was a nice change from the usual landlord/tenant disputes I witness.
I did my usual thing inside the house, checking air flow from vents, discussing temp settings, appliances, etc. The landlord then asked if I would go into the crawl space/basement of the house to look at the air handler.
Jose was waiting downstairs and he unlocked the small crawl space door, maybe three feet wide by 3 feet high. He climbed down into this small room, perhaps 50 square feet. As I tucked myself through the door and climbed down three tiny steps, I suddenly smelled a strong gas smell.
This is the part where I have to tell you that I am absolutely terrified of gas. When I inherited my house it came with one heating system for the house- an old wall heater with propane gas. The pilot light was always going out. I was so terrified of gas that every time I tried to turn the heat on, I would light a long stick of incense until it was flaming on the end and I would hide behind a bookshelf and wave the incense in the general direction of the pilot light and hope for the best.
I went cold a lot.
I finally bit the bullet and paid good money to put electric heat in my house because I was tired of that nonsense.
So when I smelled that gas yesterday, I got really scared. I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of that tiny room filled with gas, but because I once had a customer give me a glowing recommendation but a low “customer service” score because I didn’t crawl into the crawl space under his house, I stayed long enough to look around quickly and notice a big tear in the return duct going to the air conditioner and a big leak on the supply side.
I made a joke about being scared and I told the homeowner I wasn’t staying. I scrambled out of there first, banging my clipboard against the walls and bursting out of the room almost comically. Jose assured me the mattress had only bumped the valve and that he’d closed it and everything should be fine. I told him I didn’t care, I wasn’t staying down there.
The homeowner and I went back inside to retrieve my digital thermometer I’d left inside. As soon as I walked into the house I smelled the gas. The air conditioner was running and pulling all that gas from that room and blowing it right into the house. I told the owner I wasn’t staying in the house, that we needed to get out quickly. I ran over to grab my thermometer and ran outside. At the time I was a little embarrassed by my actions. I don’t like to seem like a sissy in any way, shape or form, but I wasn’t messing around with gas.
As the owner fumbled with a bag full of keys to lock the front door, I walked down the side of the house and saw Jose talking to a friend who’d just walked up. I could see the friend walking towards Jose and that basement. I could see he was carrying a lit cigarette.
I yelled at him to get the hell away from the house, that there was a gas leak and he needed to put the damn cigarette out. As he walked across the street and appeared to put his cigarette out, I yelled to Jose that the apartment was full of gas and that he needed to tape over that return leak.
I thought the man put his cigarette out. I picked up my phone to make a call for the homeowner and walked over to my car, which was parked 20 feet away from that basement. Just as the second man walked back over to the basement to talk to Jose I heard and felt the explosion.
I saw the two men get blown out of the basement.
And then I heard Jose’s screams. I looked right at him and it took a minute to register that he was still on fire. And that those strips hanging from his arms, those white strips, that wasn’t his t-shirt. His t-shirt was black.
That was his skin hanging from him in tatters. And he was still on fire.
And he screamed. And screamed.
I hung up and called 911, yelling to Jose to drop and roll. Sometimes I wonder whether or not all the safety training you hear throughout your life will come to you in a time of crisis. Thankfully, it did. I screamed to Jose to drop and roll, drop and roll, you’re on fire, you have to roll. A man from across the street came running over and helped get Jose on the ground.
I wasn’t sure if the whole house would explode, so I yelled to them we had to get across the street.
Once we got them across the street, the man who’d run across the street to help, Jerry, got Jose to the ground and held his hand. He’d heard the explosion and grabbed a bucket of water. He was so good to Jose,yelling to Jose to stay with him.
That’s when all the looky-loos showed up. One man walked right over to the basement door to look inside as smoke poured out the basement door. The mattress had caught fire leaning against the gas pipe.
And this jackass was carrying a lit cigarette as he tried to satisfy his curiosity.
I’ve wanted to punch a lot of people in my life, but never so much as I wanted to punch that jackass yesterday.
The fire department and paramedics got there and just in time. Jose was fading, his eyes rolling in his head, his screams turning to moans.
It wasn’t until later that I realized we’d all been so focused on Jose, but the second guy sat there on the curb, all alone, his skin hanging in shreds, the cigarette butt I thought he’d stubbed out still between his fingers.
And I felt guilty for not realizing nobody was helping him, nobody was comforting him. It doesn’t matter whether or not his cigarette caused the explosion. The fact is, he was badly burned, too, and nobody ran over to help him.
I spent another hour talking to the fire department investigator. The owner had been in the front. I was the only one who’d seen it, who could tell them just what happened.
I’m safe. I wasn’t hurt by the explosion. I was far enough away. I was lucky, so very lucky.
But that isn’t enough to stop my brain. You see, I have what I call a looping brain. It’s like the old reel-to-reel film. When something happens, I can’t find the “off” switch.
Years ago, I damn near stuck my hand into a nest of pygmy rattlesnakes. I was so traumatized I had to take sleeping pills every night for weeks, because every time I closed my eyes all I saw was my hand six inches away from 4 or 5 snakes. The only way I stopped it was to finally force myself to keep my eyes closed and carry through with the images to the worst case scenario. I had to lie there in bed and imagine me sticking my hand into those snakes, then those snakes all biting me. I had to focus on all of their stupid little snake teeth biting into my flesh. Then I had to visualize me getting away from them, calling the hospital, riding in the ambulance. I even visualized me being treated in the ER. Most importantly, I visualized me coming home from the hospital, perfectly fine.
You know what? Once I just kept my eyes closed and allowed the whole thing to play out, I was fine.
I don’t know how to do that with this one. I am looping again.
I keep thinking “what if I’d been in that room and I’d banged my metal clipboard against something and caused a spark? What if he’d had a lighter in his pocket and his jeans had pushed that lighter wheel just the slightest and it caused a spark in his pocket? What if I had been down there inside that tiny room when the gas exploded? What if that had been me stumbling around with my skin hanging off my limbs, my hair melted and fused to my skull, still on fire?”
What if that had been me?
What if I had been inside that house and the explosion had been even worse?
Why didn’t I help that poor man as he sat there alone on the curb, his flesh hanging off him? Why didn’t I tell the 911 person I couldn’t talk to them anymore, that I needed to help him?
What if I had been disfigured? What if I had third degree burns over all my exposed body part?
I was in that basement just a few short moments before it blew. Yes, I got out quickly but why did I even step off that bottom stair to turn around and go back out? I should never even have stepped off that stair. I should have made an ass of myself and twisted my body around and gotten out of there, no matter how ungainly I looked with my overweight body trying to squeeze through that tiny door.
Yes, I am grateful that it wasn’t me. Yes, I know luck was on my side yesterday. Yes, I know it wasn’t me.
I know all of this in my “right mind”.
But it doesn’t stop the looping. It doesn’t stop the mental image of Jose, it doesn’t take away the sound of his screams.
It was absolutely horrible.
I just hope I can stop the looping.