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An Apartment Fire Story

Whoa!!!!!!: Crazy, amazing, awful, but in the end... life affirming -- expat Nicolas Balcazar recounts his apartment fire.
By Feb 18, 2011 Community


So this is a little bit of a divergence from SmartShanghai’s usual fodder of nightlife, dining, art, shopping, activities-related content. I think this might be our first and only “human interest story” ever.

This is what this is: the unthinkable happened to Nicolas Balcazar, an expat doing a short-term internship in Shanghai, living with two roommates in the Xujiahui area. During the Chinese New Year celebrations, a stray firework landed in his 12th floor apartment and set it ablaze. Yeah, whoa. Thankfully, the bo’ans and fire department reacted quickly, and the fire was extinguished before it was able to do truly tragic damage, and it was confined solely to his apartment. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but his apartment suffered some pretty massive property damage. Nicolas contacted SmartShanghai with this crazy and terrifying experience and asked if we’d like to share his story (and pictures) with our readers in the hopes that we can learn something from his ordeal.

Before we get into it, we’d just like to say that there is no criticism or condemnation of the practice of lighting fireworks during Chinese New Year here. We don’t relate this story as a critique in any way of how people celebrate their culture and heritage during CNY. Wherever you live in the world, China or anywhere else, you always think at some point, ‘what would I do if a fire were to break out in my apartment? How would I react in that situation?’ Well, it happened to Nicolas and here’s how he dealt with it. Also -- and this is something he directly communicates when you speak with him about it -- accidents happen. Accidents happen. Shit happens. But if you’re able to recognize what is truly valuable in life -- you’re health, your friends, you family -- and not your stuff, you can get through these horrible episodes and be a better person for it.

Enough preamble.


SmSh: So your apartment caught fire!

Nicolas: Yeah, basically what happened was it was the end of Chinese New Year, February 6, a Sunday, and I was sleeping at home because I wanted to go out later in the night to take some pictures of the actual fireworks, when suddenly people start banging on my door. At first I just ignored it because I don’t speak Chinese and I can’t communicate with people when they come to the door. But they were so insistent -- banging, banging, banging on the door -- so finally I opened the front door. And they rushed in and were shouting “shui, shui’ [“water”] and pointing at my roommates door, which is in front of my room in the apartment.

And I said, “Shui? No, no, his name is Nathan and he’s not here.”

SmSh: [Laughs.]

Nicolas: [Laughs.] I was shouting, “he’s not here, he’s not here.” And then I opened the door to show them that he was not home and a huge wall of fire was rising up from his bed. Half the room was on fire. So, yeah, I learned “shui” means either fire or water. [Laughs.]

And then myself and the guards of the building -- it was they who came in -- we tried to put it out ourselves with water from the kitchen. But obviously it was already too big at that point…

SmSh: Like bringing buckets of water from the kitchen?

Nicolas: Well, we didn’t even have buckets so it was just with cups of water… and whatever we could use that was lying around.

SmSh: Wow.

Nicolas: Yeah, me and two guards. We saw it was pointless after a minute or so. And already there was so much smoke. And that’s the thing. It wasn’t really the heat of the fire that was the problem, it was the smoke, which is this thick, thick black smoke, like burning plastic. It was irritating to the eyes and spreading all over the apartment, so I just ran into my room and grabbed my camera and my laptop and whatever clothes were on the floor -- because I was still in my pajamas then, I was sleeping -- and ran out. Two fresh t-shirts and two fresh pairs of underwear… [Laughs.]

SmSh: Good thinking.

Nicolas: … And then we called the firemen -- well the guards called them, I wouldn’t even know the number of the fire department -- and they came and took care of it.

[Ed's note: Number is 119. We didn't know either... live and learn.]

And yeah, firemen and policemen came, set up the fire hose and started to put it out. At that point, the electricity had gone out. I wanted to run back in with the firemen to take some pictures -- that was my only instinct, to take pictures -- but there was too much smoke. You couldn’t get in besides maybe crawling in the place.

SmSh: How many firemen came? Was it a whole team?

Nicolas: It was two trucks. Two trucks came to the building. At least six or seven firemen in the apartment.

SmSh: You’re on the 12th floor. How did they get the fire hose up there?

Nicolas: Well they brought the hose with them, but on each floor I think there is a connector to set up the hose and get the water.

SmSh: Do you have fire alarms? Did any alarms go off?

Nicolas: We have a smoke detector in the kitchen, which is quite far away from the room that caught on fire -- my roommates room -- and so it went off later on when the smoke reached it. There was no main alarm in the apartment.

SmSh: So how did it all start?

Nicolas: It was 9 o’clock at night. I live with two roommates -- a French girl and an American guy -- but the girl was in Hong Kong and my other roommate was at a friend’s place celebrating the end of Chinese New Year. So I was alone, but it was actually lucky I was there because the security guys, when I was talking to them later, they said that it would have been worse because they would not be able to get into the apartment to put it out if no one was home. It’s a heavy lock and a heavy door… and we’re all just really lucky no one got hurt. That’s the good thing. It was quite the experience. It was a strange experience. Like wow.

But yeah, we figured out afterwards it was a firework that was shot from the ground floor that came up in through the window. It broke the window.

SmSh: It actually broke the window?

Nicolas: Yeah, it actually broke the window. We could see afterwards that the window was closed and the glass broke when it came in the room. And then it set the curtains on fire first, and from there it spread to the whole room. Our compound has a backyard, and it was one guy with his child lighting fireworks in the compound. The guy didn’t want to go out into the street because he was with his three-year-old. But we’re lucky because he has taken responsibility and he is paying for all the damages. I mean, we don’t even have insurance or anything, but he paid for our hotel which we had to stay in, and he’s paying our landlord. Our landlord is getting all this money to remodel the place from him.

I feel bad for the guy and hope he will be okay financially. It was an accident… and he's been very sorry to us.

SmSh: Do you know what was the damage? How much is the guy paying? I guess it started in your roommate’s room. Did he lose everything?

Nicolas: Well, luckily he was already kind of living with his girlfriend, so he had half his stuff there, including his laptop. But in our apartment he had clothes, desk, bed, shoes… but he lost all that, which I guess is half his stuff.

But yeah, the guy who is paying, the landlord wants 100,000rmb. Luckily the guy has a good position -- he is the manager of something, so he is able to pay. Obviously, he’s not happy about it but he’s been apologizing to us a lot -- it’s an accident -- but he is paying the damages to us as well for the stuff we lost. His is being very good about it and very apologetic. He paid us today for the lost clothes and shoes and things. I had lost some clothes -- like 150 dollars worth -- and the girl lost her make-up and things like that.

But basically it wasn’t the fire, it was this thick black smoke that spread into the whole apartment. That was what damaged everything. This smoke settles and sticks to everything. It went everywhere. We had to throw away so much stuff -- like it got on our toothbrushes and stuff. In the kitchen it was all over the glasses and things. This thick black smoke settled on everything, couches and everything. The whole week I was smelling this burned plastic smell. Not like a barbeque smoke, a wood fire smoke, which is something I would actually like to smell right now instead of this black, burned plastic smoke. [Laughs.]

SmSh: So the place is being fixed and you’re moving back in?

Nicolas: Well, yeah, the landlord is now remodelling the place and making everything new, so now the rent will go up.

SmSh: [Laughs.] What!

Nicolas: Yeah, and we don’t want to pay the increased rent. But the landlord is happy because she is getting all this money. So we’ve moved to another apartment in our same compound, paying a little more but not much more. We just moved in…

SmSh: So what is your attitude towards fireworks and Chinese New Year now? Are you really anti-fireworks now?

Nicolas: No, no not at all. I still think they should not be forbidden because it’s Chinese, it’s the culture. And it’s fun. I still like fireworks. It’s part of the celebrations and it should not change. On the day of Chinese New Year I was quite happy to be here and see the fireworks, I’ve only been here for four months – I’m doing an internship in Computational Biology at an institute part of the China Academy of Science.

But we’re just lucky and happy no one got hurt. I guess if I was to tell people about it -- to maybe help people in that situation -- the worst factor that I did not think, was the smoke, not the fire and heat. It made me dizzy when I was packing my stuff in my room and coughing, eyes watering, and you can’t see anything. So maybe that was not responsible on my part to stay in the apartment for so long. I know now you can just pass out in one second. I’m lucky it didn’t happen…

SmSh: But you didn’t panic or anything?

Nicolas: Actually I was very calm. I guess I’m a calm person. I guess things happen for a reason. And you have to look for a positive side to it. Now it’s a big change for us, moving to a new apartment, and things will be better.

SmSh: Fresh start.

Nicolas: Fresh start exactly.



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  • robjamdj

    Interesting article, new angle, lets see some more SMSH investigative time push the boat out a bit more... bit more naming & shaming on the landlord front.

  • moneyinabox

    How can we dance when our earth is turning,
    How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

    Crazy story. Glad Nicholas lived to share the tale!

  • djsexypaul

    I think the best part is that the local guy held his hand up and said "yep, twas me" and put his other hand in his pocket and paid for everyones stuff. Its stories like that that reaffirm to me that not everyone is a complete cnut

  • Karibdis

    "the landlord is now remodelling the place and making everything new, so now the rent will go up" - and my estimation of Shanghai landlords drops even lower - if that's possible...

    What are the chances of this remodelling including windows of sufficient quality and thickness not to be broken by a firework?

  • carlonseider

    Poor neighbour having to stump up. I mean, accidents happen, but it doesn't seem right that he has to pay 100k rmb.

  • NicolasBalcazar

    I want to thank all of my friends and people that supported me with their help! THANK YOU! And also Morgan for getting this out there :)
    If you want to contact me or follow more of my photography works, this is it:

    Best wishes! Nicolas

  • MirrorMirror

    I agree with carlonseider, it's a bit crap the neighbor has to pay over 100K RMB!! It was an accident!

    Any one know what would happen if the neighbor didn't have that cash or hadn't made himself known? Who would pay????

  • Unverified User

    If someone burned down your house i don't think you would think it's "crap" that he has to pay you for damages. If anything kudos goes to the neighbor for doing the right thing; I don't feel sorry for him at all. Also judging by those pictures he needs the entire place re-done, for a 3 bedroom apartment 100k is just barely gonna cover it.

    I once had the apartment 2 floors up burst a pipe and the water leaked through the apartment above me and into my apartment. I couldn't even get the bitch to buy me a new bathroom ceiling because "she didn't think it was necessary". In the end it wasn't worth the fight, b/c we were talking 1000 rmb not even. But it was really frustrating and annoying that she would not take responsibility for it.

  • seoul4seattle

    holyyyyy! I live in this same complex! building one so right next door to me....sorry about your apartment chinese by the way for them to raise the rent after a FIRE!? wtf. oh well......T.I.C ;)

  • Shanghaimagic

    Talking about a load of people kissing Chinese ass..well, some SmartShanghai writers and readers have certainly had their share of ass-sniffing on this story.

    Firstly, fireworks are a hazard, plain and simple. The "it's part of their culture" argument just doesn't hold water in today's world. Guns are part of America's culture too but no sane person would say that they hold any value for keeping a peaceful society. In some parts of Europe and Africa people often shoot guns directly into the air as a sign of some sort of twisted celebration all the while not letting their pea-sized brains consider "what goes up must come done". If a child is playing with a weapon and it goes off who can reasonably say "oh well, it was an accident". Hogwash. For those of you that say guns and fireworks are totally different need to study the mechanism for the discharge of a bullet to understand that gunpowder plays a major role in it.

    There are countless stories of property and personal damage that can be attributed to loathsome Chinese fireworks. They are a menace. Noisy, dangerous and hazardous to life and property. Hotels, apartment buildings etc. have been burnt to the ground because of them.

    Call it like it is writers or perhaps you are afraid that some Chinese person might get their little feelings hurt because of the big, bad laowai. Grow a pair will ya?

    Finally, just because something is/was part of a country's culture doesn't always justify their continuing use. The historical trash pile is full of numerous examples of dangerous and insane ideas born out of culture.

  • haofei

    totally agree with Shanghaimagic, this article just sounds like kissing Chinese ass. I would not feel sorry for the guy at all. Fireworks can be dangerous and can set things on fire = do not set it off close to a house, does not matter if you have a kid with you or not.

    Chinese people just have to realize that fireworks should not be set off next to houses. I just had someone blowing up a big firework next to my house and if I would have get a hold of the guy I would punch him in the face.

    Grow a pair, it is okay to criticize things in China as well!

  • morgan

    Rage on, dudes. Rage on.

  • vjbchina2010

    hahaha same thing happened to me, well kinda I fall asleep with a heater on a heater reflector I think its called, next thing I know I wake up on FIRE!...

    Awesome experience...


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