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My apartment building caught on fire; here’s what I learned about social crisis response

I still recall the time, years ago, when my best friend called me in a panic to reveal her house had just been broken into – while her brother was still home. She explained, breathing heavily between sentences, how the front door had been smashed in, items rummaged through, and how the thief had bolted when her brother ran downstairs in an attempt to stop him. Her voice cracks when she considers alternate outcomes of the situation – what if the thief had a weapon, or had back up? What if no one was home? What if she was home?

In times like these, it’s easy to conjure images of what oneself would do when placed in the same situation. Most of the time, we like to imagine ourselves as the hero – we like to think we’d stay strong, we’d be logical, we’d climb out window A or take item B to do C, D, and E. When planning out the situation from a calm state in which the crisis is purely hypothetical, we tend to handle it super well. 

But more often than not, when a crisis happens for real, that planning goes out the door.

A little over two weeks ago, just days after having moved into my new apartment, disaster struck. On an average Sunday, after a trip to some local markets, I had returned home to spend the afternoon relaxing on the couch, with the intention of maybe finally putting away all of my laundry. The upstairs neighbours have a habit of sometimes being a little too noisy, and today was no exception, so my usual solution of turning up whatever show I’m currently binging was utilised. The noise progressed. 

 

“Why does it sound like they’re bowling?” My friend joked to me. We laughed.

Until the banging on my door started. 

Footsteps and voices down the hallway of my small apartment complex came barrelling towards me. I hastily shot up and answered the door to a wind of smoke, and a firefighter, who informed me that we needed to evacuate right now, and that the entire top floor of my three-story building was burning down. 

crisis fire
Image via Unsplash

Having a house burn down is another situation where we find it easy to imagine what we would do, and it is one I’d thought about a million times (hello, irrational fears!). What I think we fail to realise, myself included, is how quickly seconds go by when the situation is real, and how few of those seconds you actually have. My instincts made think of my mother, that I needed to call her, and so I used those few seconds to retrieve my charging phone from my bedroom before sprinting out into the street.

While I stood outside, I thought about all the things I had planned to bring with me when I had considered this as a hypothetical situation and realised that I had left practically all of them behind. I glanced down at my phone, the only personal item I did grab, and then at my feet, turned brown from running through the street barefoot. Reflecting now, shoes were never considered in the hypothetical scenario either.

Amongst the large crowd that had gathered outside to watch the spectacle, I noticed others who had the same panicked look as me, their hands full of personal belongings like laptops and backpacks – clearly other tenants who were watching their home burn down, too. I thought about all the things inside that I would need to both continue living where I am overseas, and to someday soon get home. My wallet, with my ID and debit cards. My working visa. My passport. I kicked myself for not remembering what I’d prepared in my theoretical plan.

What I most definitely wasn’t prepared for, even hypothetically, was the mass amount of bystanders watching the crisis unfold, and even more so, how they too were responding. A flurry of people who had been passing by, or who were attracted by the sirens and lights, stared in awe at the mass of flames and resounding black smoke, unbothered by the rain of ash falling on all who stood close by.

 

crisis social media
Image via Unsplash

Many had their phones out, documenting the excessive fire and the firefighters doing what they could to battle the flames – but it was the few who had their phones in the direction of the public, filming the large group of tenants and myself as we watched on in horror, that had me disturbed. It was the one who I caught SnapChatting the scene to his friends, commenting that he was “glad that wasn’t his place!” that made me realise how insensitive these onlookers were being. And it was yet another onlooker who approached me personally, blank Tweet open, to ask if I knew what happened after observing my conversation with an officer – only to retreat to the most uncaring stance when I couldn’t provide any answers – that had me outright offended. 

I’m not the only one to hold negative attitudes towards crisis bystanders. Multiple cases over the years reprimand those who choose to film and tweet about situations that unfold as opposed to offering assistance to those who may need it. However, responses of irritation and uneasiness towards filming bystanders may ultimately be unjust, as it could result that they too are coping with being involved in a crisis – but as witnesses, rather than victims. 

While many of us tend to imagine what we would do in such a crisis, that same amount of thought is rarely given to scenarios that place us as witnesses, despite this being a more probable occurrence in one’s lifetime. When placed in an unfamiliar position, people tend to react in ways that feel the most constructive, with many crisis witnesses claiming to film or live-Tweet as a means to provide accurate eyewitness accounts to authorities, others as a means to come to terms with what is happening before them, and more explaining that relaying the scene to friends and family helped them come to terms with what they’ve seen. As insensitive as it may seem at the time, some good does come out of the documentation provided by witnesses after the fact.

Clearly, there is no right or wrong way to respond to a crisis, and you can’t always predict what you’re going to think or feel in the heat of the moment (fire-related pun intended). That being said, if you find yourself in or around a predicament, its best to stay calm, seek help, and where possible, put the phone away and offer a hand.