7:00 A.M. EST Oct. 19, 2010 | ANTIOCH, Tenn. (UMNS)
The bone-rattling blare of the alarm jolted me out of bed, if not fully into consciousness.
Only years of training from public-school fire drills — and irritation at having my sleep disturbed — sent me shuffling in bare feet and pajamas toward the door of my apartment. Probably a false alarm, I muttered to myself as I jostled the doorknob.
I was wrong.
Above me, a tower of flame was ripping through the second-floor wall and peeling off chunks of the ceiling. In its haunting light, I could see black smoke creeping toward the stairwell. A heavy, acrid smell like a thousand cigarettes filled the air.
I was terrified. A barrage of curses filled my mind. I did not think of God.
Tests of faith
This was not the first time I found myself so close to an out-of-control blaze. One cold, December night when I was 11, a spark from a malfunctioning space heater ignited a fire that gutted my family's house.
That night, my mom shook my younger sister and me awake, made us grab our slippers and pushed us toward the front door to safety. We called frantically for our beloved cat, Freya, but we were unable to rescue her. We learned later she had died of smoke inhalation.
My family made it through that difficult time. We were healthy and had the resources to rebuild our house and replace what we needed. We also eventually got two new cats, who enjoyed long, happy lives.
Still, I mourned Freya. And for about a year after that fire, it seemed just about everything we had smelled of smoke — a constant reminder of what was lost. I remember being very angry with God for a while. How could God let this happen?
More than 20 years later, I did not have time to think about that previous trauma with another fire tearing through my home.
My next-door neighbor, Ben, was standing in his doorway. “Don’t try to get anything,” he shouted over the crackling wood. “Run.”
It was perhaps the best advice I ever received. At that moment, a loud pop pierced the night as a fiery piece of ceiling crashed onto the floor above us. Ben and I both ran into the parking lot where the other building residents were gathering. I didn’t even shut my apartment door.
We were all talking at once. Has someone called 911? Yes. Is everybody safe?
I scanned the anxious faces around me searching desperately for the older couple that lived upstairs from me. I didn't know their names, but they always had a smile for me whenever I passed by. Moments after I arrived, the two joined the crowd in the parking lot. I was as relieved as if my own parents had escaped. Everyone seemed to be accounted for.
All we could do was wait and watch in horror as the flames spread. Only then did I realize how empty-handed I was — no wallet, no phone, no slippers. All I had were the red shorts and gray T-shirt I had worn to bed.
From the far side of the parking lot, we could feel the fire's heat wash over us. We heard the horrible crunching and snapping as walls caved in and the roof collapsed. Like a ravenous monster, the blaze clawed through the entire top floor, devouring everything in its path. By the time two fire trucks arrived, fire was chomping the branches of the tree in front of my apartment and nibbling at the roof of the building next door.
Some of my neighbors quietly wept. I looked on in shock. It wasn't hard to see why so many people have associated hell with flames.
This time, I wasn't blaming God for the destruction we were witnessing. God has nothing to do with this fire, I thought. My prayer that night wasn't one of anger but a supplication for guidance.
I was a recent arrival to the Nashville area and hundreds of miles away from friends and family, including my husband.
I soon realized I wasn't alone. God was present that night.
God was there with the firefighters as they stopped the fire from spreading to other buildings and in about an hour, brought the fire under control.
God was there in the faces of neighbors from the surrounding buildings, eager to offer whatever comfort they could.
One man brought out a bag of clothes to give away to those of us from the burning building. He gave me a giant plaid shirt to put over my T-shirt and a pair of sandals. They were way too big but a vast improvement over bare feet, and much of the next day, they were my only shoes. I never did get his name.
Another woman named Heather welcomed me, a complete stranger, to spend the night with her and her daughter in their apartment. She also lent me clothes to wear the next day, and just as importantly, her cell phone.
I was surrounded by people who cared, and that was the proof of divine love I needed.
It took about a week and a half for the shock of the fire to wear off.
But since that time, I also have felt an almost ineffable joy to be alive. I rejoice that all 24 people in the 14 affected units got out safely, and I am incredibly grateful for all the people I met since that night who have offered their help.
Red Cross volunteers were at the apartment the next day to help us with immediate needs like food, clothes and medicine. The apartment staff helped us all relocate to new homes either in the same complex or another nearby property. Local churches donated furniture, and stores gave away gift certificates.
My co-workers at United Methodist Communications also took up a generous collection to help me. And I am grateful to have renters' insurance and the knowledge that things can be replaced.
Two weeks later, the cause of the fire is still unknown. And that's not the only unsolved mystery I ponder in the wee hours of the morning.
I don't know why I have managed to survive two devastating fires when so many good people have died in fires and other natural disasters just this year.
I have far less insight than the generations of theologians who have wrestled with the problem of theodicy – how to reconcile a loving, all-powerful God with the existence of evil.
But the message of the Cross, to me, is that God is with us in our suffering. And often God's hands in the world are the neighbors we meet. The apartment fire brought together a diverse group of people of varied ages, races, economic backgrounds and religious beliefs. But since the fire, we have become bound together not just by trauma but also by a renewed sense of neighborliness.
Even when things are at their scariest, we can feel God's presence in the kindness of those around us.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.