Guest Columnists

Lessons Learned From Tragic Fire

by Erick Rommel

WHEN YOU’RE IN SCHOOL, playing hooky is frowned upon. The same is true as an adult, but adults have something students in school do not. We have vacation time.

It’s because of that wonderful “get out of work free” card that my wife and I found ourselves relaxing on the beach Sept. 12. After Labor Day is one of the best times at the shore, especially in New Jersey. Everyone who vacations is back at work and school, leaving the beaches empty for those of us who live close by year-round.

I could have counted the people on the beach on both hands and still had some fingers left over. It was a perfect day.

After a few hours relaxing, my wife walked two blocks to the boardwalk for some end-of-season shopping. Once tourists go home, beach supplies go on sale. That was especially true this year as the boardwalks slowly rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy.

Dark Cloud on the Horizon

By the time she returned, I was ready for some boardwalk time. It was mid-afternoon, and I was hungry. I quickly followed in her footsteps. On the horizon, I noticed a dark cloud. At first, I thought it was in the distance. But as I got closer, I realized it was right in front of me.

Smoke billowed out of the ice cream shop at the corner of the boardwalk. Firefighters had just arrived and were searching for the smoke’s origin. No flames were visible. It appeared to be a small incident they’d quickly get under control.

Not wanting to get in the way, I walked to the street paralleling the boardwalk. As I walked along the sidewalk, I passed an open door, noticed an older woman walking down a steep, narrow set of stairs. She was carrying an oxygen tank.

Before I realized it, I had turned around and offered to help her down the stairs. I held her oxygen tank and waited until someone she knew arrived. I continued down the street and back onto the boardwalk. The smoke was incredibly thick. Having seen the cause up close, I still felt there was no danger.

I turned around and started walking back the way I came. When I reached the ice cream shop at the corner of the boardwalk, firefighters were still at work, and, for the first time, I saw flames. I returned to my wife, and we watched the smoke in the distance. It went from dark gray to black to almost white. We thought that meant the fire was under control. Maybe we were right, but that changed in an instant. The smoke turned pitch black.

Sept. 12 began as a great day to play hooky. It was a perfect day. It ended with tragedy.

If you follow the news, you know what happened. Heavy winds blew embers from building to building. By the time firefighters from across the state controlled the flames, more than four blocks of boardwalk had been destroyed.

There are moments from that day I will think about the rest of my life. Ten minutes before the first call to 911, my wife was standing in the spot where they say the fire began. I know she would have been safe, but would it have happened differently if she had been there?

Should I have known the fire was going to get worse when everything I saw told me it was under control?

What if I hadn’t stopped to help the woman with the oxygen tank? Would I be wondering what had happened to her? Would I have questioned a decision to not turn around?

Clarifying Moments

You never know when memorable moments will occur in your life. That’s why it’s important to be a good person, even in moments you think are disposable. Those unexpected moments teach you who you are.

Make sure they’re moments you won’t want to forget.

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