Fire is something you never think you're going to have to go through.
When the smoke clears what will you find? 112112 SPEAKINGOUT 1 Capital City Weekly Fire is something you never think you're going to have to go through.

Photo By Sarah Day / Capital City Weekly

An "X" marks the door of apartment 301 in Gastineau Apartments, where firefighters marked that the room was clear of people. This is a glimpse at the sooty, soggy mess left in Sarah Day's packed apartment by the fire.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Story last updated at 11/21/2012 - 3:13 pm

When the smoke clears what will you find?

Fire is something you never think you're going to have to go through.

Until Monday, Nov. 5, I lived in Gastineau Apartments in Juneau for two years and about three months.

That fire alarm squawked, in recent months, at least once a month. In school you're trained to leave the building and stand outside, every time. This building had trained its residents to largely ignore it, which is actually quite scary when you think about it, considering that according to an article by Emily Russo Miller at the Juneau Empire the Gastineau Apartments were considered "high risk" for fire by the fire department.

My own "protocol," if you will, was to peak my head out the door or go as far as the stairwell to see if there were any visible signs of a real issue. On Monday, I'd gotten as far as my door when I heard a loud banging on a door down the hall. I'd pulled open my door, seen a thin layer of smoke gathering on the third floor ceiling, and a Juneau police officer at my neighbor's door telling everyone to evacuate.

I said a very loud expletive in my head and grabbed my cat carrier. I'd shoved my largest cat into it and the other two scattered. Fortunately, the youngest is super curious and came back almost instantly. Into the carrier he went, but Snickers, my little girl kitty, was hiding. The officer pounded on my door again. I told him I had to get my cat. By this point I was almost ready to panic. I needed to find my last cat.

Luck was with me and I got her to bolt from where she was hiding in the kitchen. I practically pounced on her and pushed her into the carrier with two other unhappy cats. That carrier is for vet trips. And usually for one cat at a time.

I grabbed my purse, my cats and left. I wasn't on fourth floor, I'd had no idea how bad it was getting.

After a few minutes of standing on the street with my cats hissing at dogs through their carrier, I went to look at the small path between the Gastineau Apartments and the Elks Lodge/Rockwell restaurant. In the upper half, it was a wall of flame.

I went back to the corner to watch with the rest of my fellow apartment dwellers, when we were told basically to scatter because the smoke was going to fill the streets. So I lugged about 35 pounds of cat all the way around the block and set them in the office.

Then I went to watch the fire. I didn't think there'd be anything left because at about 6 p.m. flames burst more openly through the roof. I heard the firemen using a saw. The last time I saw a fire like this was back in Minnesota, when a factory that works with cereal products caught on fire. Its warehouse was where the fire started, and was contained to, but that fire burned so hot the whole thing collapsed. By the look of things from the outside on the Gastineau, I was expecting similar results.

Fire is scary, and this definitely sucks, but I'm still waiting for that point where I'm supposed to freak out. I am certainly stressed and exhausted. It's going to take a long time to get back to the point where I was. My coworker tells me I'm taking it like it's just another bump in the road. Partly it is.

I thought it would hit me when I saw the condition of my apartment. It didn't. Parts of the drywall on the ceiling had collapsed on the floor. Everything was black and wet. Empty soda cans I'd left on the kitchen counter were completely full of water. There were white circles on the counter where the cans had been before the water started pouring in (the counters are white). There was even a full marinara jar that had moved across the counter. A long closet shelf had toppled and strewn clothing all over the floor. The white shower was black. Kind of a common theme. On Sunday it started to rain. It was the final day I pulled what I thought I might be able to save out. It was also raining in my apartment. You'll also have to trust me when I say you never want to see what a clean kitty box looks like after that many gallons of water have poured down on it. I'm glad I don't have to clean that up.

I find myself thankful for a lot of things. I'm thankful for the fire department's response, that the only life tragically lost was a cat named Boots, that the fire was contained to 4th floor, that I'd moved out of 4th floor last year and still had stuff to try and salvage (I can see the roof and nothing but scorched black through the windows of my old apartment), for the Red Cross and Salvation Army, for the generosity of friends, family, local businesses and complete strangers, that I miraculously found a new apartment that accepted my three cats, that I had a nice, warm place to stay while I was displaced, and for many more things that have occurred, or will. I am also fortunate that Emily Miller cancelled dinner plans with me on Monday night. We were going to go out for Thai - which is all the way in Auke Bay. I might not have been home to play "catch the cats" when this all started.

I know the recovery process will be a lot harder for many of Gastineau's residents. Everyone handles this kind of thing differently. Pair that with Juneau's low-income housing shortage (well, also housing in general), and it's going to hit hard.

Sarah Day is the managing editor of Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at sarah.day@capweek.com.