Chiquita rents the second-floor apartment from an elderly woman who lives downstairs with her son and caretaker Jerry. He was taking a midday nap, but the smoke alarms, and perhaps the girls pounding on the door, jolted him awake.
With the overwhelming stench, Jerry knew this wasn’t a false alarm. He swung open the basement door, and smoke poured out as if from a chimney. He couldn’t see a thing, and in the split second before dialing 9-1-1, Jerry mourned the probable death of the three pet turtles he kept in an aquarium downstairs.
The fire department appeared in seconds, and after putting the fire out, they showed Jerry where it all started: the downstairs refrigerator was plugged in to an extension cord, and when it sparked, the surrounding woodwork shot up in flames.
“It was plugged in like that for 50 years,” Jerry said. “I had no idea it was a problem.” The firefighters explained to Jerry that large appliances like refrigerators must be grounded—plugged into a three-prong outlet or power strip—and that electrical cords should be checked routinely, and replaced if frayed. Electrical fires are one of the leading causes of home fires. The U.S. Fire Administration provides tips for preventing these fires.
Jerry was down about the destruction caused by the fire, though he was glad that most of his and his mothers’ possessions were only tainted with the smell of smoke. “We’ve got 50 years’ worth of stuff down there,” he said. He still wore a smile, though: all three turtles survived.
Volunteers from the Red Cross were able to provide food and shelter to the people affected by this fire. Home fires are so commonplace that they often go unnoticed by the media, but they happen 2 to 3 times a day, every day in Chicagoland.
Make sure to inspect your home for fire hazards, and be active in preventing them. See the USFA page on home fire prevention, and our page on fire safety. The Red Cross offers a fire prevention program, Team Firestopper, which provides education and fire prevention activities in communities that are disproportionately affected by home fires. Team Firestopper volunteers conduct home hazard hunts to identify issues like this one before they cause destruction. For information about volunteering with Team Firestopper or to sign up for a visit to your home, go to http://bit.ly/al25l7.
Written by: Jonathan Bressler