Views And Reviews


BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 05 February 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:419
  1. T Greenhalgh

    On 29 November 1989 we were writing out Christmas party invitations and listening to the Brandenberg concertos on the radio. Our 6 month old son was asleep in the back bedroom. An old friend phoned and chatted for a long time. I thought I smelt burning, so I peered round the door to the limit of the telephone flex. I saw a light upstairs, and assumed I had left the bedside lamp switched on.

    I had. The lamp had toppled over and a cotton duvet quickly caught alight. The bed, which was new and fireproof, did not burn, but the wallpaper, the wardrobes, and the carpet did. In a household where the morning toast chars as often as not, a faint smell of burning arouses no special trepidation. We probably went through a subconscious checklist of appliances diligently switched off and plugs carefully rewired. The only naked flame in the house was the living room fire, which was giving out its controlled and comforting glow before our eyes.

    There was a soft “pop” as the main fuse blew. Bach's gentle tones stopped abruptly and we were in darkness save for the dull red hearth and a flickering yellow on the upstairs landing. I screamed involuntarily, ran into the hall, and froze. My husband was upstairs in two steps, choking hard against the smoke, and quickly emerged cradling a wide eyed infant against his chest. The bedroom door had been closed, otherwise he would have been carrying a corpse. “Come on, let's get out,” he said in the same urgent, coaxing voice I had once used as a medical registrar at cardiac arrests. My fingers fumbled with the familiar latch like a new houseman's on a vital cannula. It took both of us to pull the door open.

    I sat next door, drinking brandy from a teacup while the old lady cooed over the baby. Rafters cracked like gunfire. My husband dashed back in to rescue his hard disk and the insurance papers. Two teams of firemen in breathing apparatus ran through the house smashing windows to let the smoke out. They shouted at people to move their cars, and sprayed foam in through the broken windows. Neighbours we had never spoken to offered to take us in. My father in law arrived, half carried me to his car, and took us off to the comforts of another home. I was in a dressing gown and wellingtons; we didn't even have a spare nappy.

    We returned next day in borrowed clothes to survey our blackened, broken home. A local builder was already preparing a quote. I began to make a list of contents for the loss adjuster. The nursery was thick with soot, and the musical mobile from the side of the cot was a pool of melted plastic on the floor. That afternoon, I took the baby for a chest x ray and got sleeping tablets from my GP. My boss granted me indefinite compassionate leave. “But do me a favour,” he said, “ask Father Christmas to bring you a smoke alarm.”

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