At 1:30 a.m., Courteney Coolidge woke up to the smell of something burning.
"I thought, oh my god, where's that toast smell coming from?" she said.
Her two sons, ages 6 and 8, were sleeping in their room, in the home the family of three shares on Evelyn Avenue.
Coolidge jumped out of bed and ran into the kitchen but saw nothing amiss. She headed toward the back bedroom, where the smell got stronger and stronger. Looking outside, through a set of gauzy curtains, she discovered the source of the smell.
"I saw this big red thing out my window," she said. "There were six-foot flames coming out of the in-law unit. It was really shocking, because it was really big. It just seemed really big."
The uninhabited in-law unit is just 10 steps from her home. She tried to use her landline to call for help but couldn't get a dial tone.
"Then I started panicking," she said. She grabbed her cell phone and tried to find a signal. Ultimately she had to go into the middle of the street to call 911.
She reported the fire, then ran back into her children's room and told her sons they had to wake up.
"'The fire trucks are coming and we all need to be out of the house,'" she told them. She ran to the front door and put her two dogs on their leashes, which she keeps hanging by the front door. She got her boys into their coats and shoes, also right by the door, and the group trooped outside.
(She later added, in a comment to this story, "I perceived there to be enough time to call and then wake the kids. If our house had been on fire, you can bet I would have left with the kids and dogs first and called 911 second.")
As soon as she stepped outside, she said, she realized her car was in the driveway, and that firefighters wouldn't be able to get into the backyard easily as a result. So she moved her car into the street, then went back to her dogs and sons on the front porch.
She then remembered that her side gate was locked with a combination lock, which she couldn't see in the darkness: "It was night, and I couldn't read it. I had no idea where my glasses were."
By that time, had arrived and they were able to get into the backyard through the other side of her house. One Albany officer turned on the garden hose and began putting water on the flames.
"There was this feeling of relief that somebody had thought to put water on the fire," she said. "It didn't even occur to me to put the fire out."
She said a firefighter later told her it would have been a bad idea had she tried, because the power cable to the main house was connected to the in-law unit, and could have been compromised. Had the unit's roof come down, the cable could have collapsed into the water, causing even more chaos and potential injuries.
Three fire trucks arrived she said. Their lights were flashing but they didn't have sirens on. "It sounded like a bonfire. Normally for me that's such a happy peaceful sound. The stars were out and there were six-foot flames coming out of this building... It wasn't as ominous as it felt like it should be."
"It was the most eerie experience," she continued, "because the fire was so quiet. It was 1:30 in the morning and I kept thinking, am I imagining this?"
Eventually she went to sit on her neighbor's porch. She said police officers "were also amazing," keeping an eye on her sons and holding the leashes of her dogs while she called her landlord.
"Everybody was just incredibly helpful and really reassuring and very communicative," she said. The lead firefighter gave her regular updates about what was happening throughout the Jan. 21 blaze. The team was there until 4:30 or 5 a.m., she said, airing the house out with a fan and making sure everything was safe for them to return.
She said the fire might have started because of flammable liquids in the in-law unit. (She added that she did not have access to the unit because it was only in use by her landlord.)
"We're just really lucky nothing in there exploded," she said. "Whatever it was that started had been burning for a long time before it got to that level of destruction."
Coolidge said she later bought 10 filet mignon steaks to take to the firehouse and police to thank them for their efforts.
"I just wanted to say 'thank you,' for the safety of my children, the safety of my family, my dogs, myself," she said. "I was really happy to live in a place where both the police and firefighters would be so responsive. I know it's their job. But it's different when it happens to you. It just didn't seem like baking cookies would be enough of a 'thank you.'"
When she and her sons dropped off the steaks, the firefighters who helped her in January took her family for a ride on a firetruck.
Capt. Jay Jorgensen of the said Coolidge, a local photographer, had been "just terrific" the night of the fire, and that most of her actions should serve as an example to others who find themselves in an emergency.
He shared two main tips for the public:
- Access to the yard and around the exterior of the house is important, but make sure to keep the doors and windows shut so as not to feed the fire. A closed door can often prevent a fire from growing in size and severity. It gives the Fire Department time to respond and react. Above all, never jeopardize your safety with your actions.
- Never go back into a burning house. (That's not what happened in this case, but the Fire Department wanted to make clear the public understands this.) Your initial actions are to escape the fire while assisting other members of the family (pets included) with exiting. Calling 911 while inside of a burning building is not the priority… Call from a neighbor’s house if need be.
In the end, Coolidge said, she guessed what had been helpful had been getting out of the house, moving her car and trying to make it easy for authorities to access the backyard. Having easily accessible shoes, coats and dog leashes helped her move quickly. And, though she felt guilty for not doing more, she said, authorities convinced her that leaving the firefighting to them had been the right decision.
"Swing everything open (outside) that can be humanly opened," she said, in reference to gates and other outdoor access points. "Then just get the heck out of the way so firefighters can do everything else,"
Coolidge also said she was left with frustration about how hard it had been to call for help. She said she has AT&T's U-Verse service, in which phone and internet lines are bundled into a single cable.
"If that one cable is affected, you have nothing," she said. "My landline was gone and my cell phone didn't work. It definitely was a wake-up call. It seriously made me consider switching over to Verizon. I know it's been controversial, putting up a cell tower. People think it's a health issue. I get it. But it's also a public safety issue."
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CLARIFICATION: This story was updated after it initially was published to include some additional information from the Fire Department about what to do in an emergency, and from Coolidge about her thoughts the night of the fire.