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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.
Last updated: 2015-11-09

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.