Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Fire of '74

Forty years ago (forty! yikes!), I was having a hard time sleeping the night of January 11, 1974, at our Bellows Court apartment in West St. Paul, Minnesota. Not sure what was keeping me awake, but I was getting frustrated with the whole insomnia thing, when a bright pinky-orange light flooded our bedroom window. The first thing that came to my mind, in my wide awake but maybe partly asleep state, was "Who the hell is setting up a carnival in our parking lot?" The light was cotton candy pink and bright as the sun. Carnival. Hm. Well, that's the way my mind works.

I honestly don't remember what happened next or how Charley and I got out of the apartment, into our car, and a mile or so away before the big explosion. We obviously moved pretty damn fast, so fast, in fact, that I left behind two of my essentials - contact lenses and birth control pills. But I did manage to stuff my feet into snow boots and pull on my parka before tearing out the door.

Where to go? What to do? This was out of the realm of experience for a couple of 22-year-old newlyweds from the South. We headed to a co-workers' apartment because we knew she'd be up late packing for Texas and the Super Bowl (Vikings vs. Dolphins).  Lest you need reminding, this was well before cell phones, email, and texting, so all we could do is just turn up on someone's doorstep without any notice. This acquaintance - not even a friend, really - let us crash in her spare bedroom so that we could at least be warm and dry for the rest of the night.

And that's about all I remember of the night itself. I'm not sure where we slept the next night, but I don't recall having stayed in a motel. Perhaps we found our new apartment the very next day, which is possible, since I guess nearby apartment complexes were housing the displaced residents of the destroyed ones.

Fortunately, Charley was an insurance man, so he knew to call to find out about emergency benefits and get details of our coverage, etc. We were lucky not to have lost everything. In fact, we were on the outer edges of the L-shaped complex, and the explosion and fire damage mainly demolished the center angle of the L. However, there was a lot of smoke and water/ice damage to furniture and clothing, mainly. In short, the sofa and mattress were gone, but my carefully packed away China was intact (a 22-year-old newlywed's priorities).

Four people lost their lives in the fire and explosion - three firemen and a manager of the other damaged apartment buildings. The cause was a little fuzzy at the time. We were told some guy was trying to thaw out something-or-other with a blow-torch just as the propane gas truck was pumping in the monthly gas allotment for the apartments. Bad timing.

I'm not sure of that's the real story, but the cause didn't really matter to us at the time. It was scary and confusing and frigid cold. But we were alive. A lesson learned about priorities forty years ago.

Sometimes, insomnia can save your life.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I am making a short documentary about this incident and wondering if I can interview you. I have a few minutes of 8mm filmstrip of the incident too. Feel free to email me @ jennifer4fpm@gmail.com