I awoke with a sense that something was wrong. My mind didn’t seem like it was working; I tried to shake off the sleep and focus on what had forced me from my slumber. My brain was foggy, my eyes were stinging and there was a strange smell in the air.
Then I heard it, my mother shouting out over and over, what sounded like, for everyone to get up. I turned my head toward the sound and rose up on my elbow but I still couldn’t focus. I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying or why she would be up. My mother’s bare feet, calves and the bottom of her light blue cotton night dress were visible at the top of the stairway just outside our open bedroom door but there was something wrong. The rest of her body was hidden in an unusual haze. I looked toward the window and it was daylight however the window appeared eerily strange like there were dark clouds floating on the inside in our room.
I turned my head and followed my mother’s voice again as she kept shouting, “Everyone get up and come to me, the house is on fire!” She was coughing and repeating that over the noise that I could now hear – a crackling and roaring of some kind began to pound in my ears. There was a strange heat in the room, beyond any I had ever felt before.
Something was terribly wrong, the house was on fire!
I rolled off my elbow and sat straight up in bed, my head groggy as I gulped in air, only then realizing it was hard to breathe. The smell of black tar and smoke drenched my senses and I knew I had to get up but I was unable to get myself oriented.
A memory popped into my head: our family had talked about our escape route in the event of a fire and it had been plotted to this bedroom, our bedroom. We were to get out on the roof of the porch that was attached to our two-storey house beneath my bedroom window and climb to safety from there as it was the lowest point on the house from the upstairs rooms.
I realized that I had to get to the window. My sister Sharon was in the bed with me and I shook her awake and told her there was trouble, we had to get out. She didn’t seem to be aware of her surroundings so I scrambled out of the bed and came around to the other side. I grabbed her, pulling at her arms and shoulders until I finally managed to stand her by the bedside. She stayed erect although she did not move and did not make a sound. I took her hand and placed it around the foot of the bed frame that rose up like a small iron pillar from the floor. My protective instinct kicked in and I told her to stay there until I broke the window and that I would come back for her. She did not move or seem to comprehend what was happening and stood there as if she were a statue.
At fourteen years old Sharon was eighteen months my junior and was my best friend along with being my sister. Although we quarrelled on occasion, I always looked out for her and we shared everything, including a room and a bed. We played together, went mostly everywhere together and it had been that way for as long as I could remember.
As I looked towards the hall I noticed that my mom was gone and I could see the smoke getting thicker and barreling up the stairs. Get to the porch was my plan, get to the porch and get us both out.
I felt my way to the window with my hands outstretched and looked out through the ever-thickening smoke; it still seemed so unreal at this point.
There was a makeshift book case beneath the window made from Carnation Milk cardboard boxes coated with a red rose-patterned wallpaper and which had cardboard shelves taped inside. Proudly displayed on this handmade bookshelf were several trophies from cross-country running and academics that both Sharon and I had received over the last couple of years from our high school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
It was difficult to see, my eyes were burning and it was getting harder to breathe. As I tried to concentrate on my movements the noise around me was getting louder, the smoke was getting thicker and the combination seemed to be urging me to hurry. However, I was groggy and every movement seemed as if I was in slow motion.
The bottom window sash slid upwards but I knew that it only went a few inches because it had been painted so often and usually warped in damp weather or after the spring of the year. I tried to pull it upward but it would not open wide enough to allow us to get out so
I pushed it shut again.
I grabbed the tallest trophy from the bookcase and swung it at the glass. In mid-motion I thought about how Mom would be so mad at me for breaking the window even though I knew that I would be forgiven for this.
When the trophy struck the glass, it didn’t explode outward as I had anticipated but sort of fell downward on the windowsill inside and outside with a strange cracking noise like two knives rubbing together. We had broken many windows while out playing games in the yard and this was not what I had heard before.
The sound of tinkling glass on glass as pieces slid over each other when gravity took over broke through the growing noise from inside the house. I used the trophy to hit at some of the sharp edges of the glass inside the lower windowpane to clear it; putty and glass fell inside and out. I threw the trophy on the floor in the corner to my right and pushed the other trophies in the same direction with one swing of my arm, hearing the crash as they fell to the floor. Then I stuck my head outside while leaning over the box-bookcase.
I was grateful that Dad had removed the storm windows because that would have added an extra layer of glass and a further complication.
I gasped as the clean air filled my lungs and I began to understand just how bad the smoke and heat was inside. I planted my two hands on the windowsill not worrying about the shards of glass, craning my neck upwards as I drank in the air. I could feel the heat of the black smoke pushing on my back as it tried to escape above and around me. I heard a hollow boom from inside the house as air searched for and found flame.
I looked around trying to assess the situation outside and noticed that the entire eave of the porch beneath my window had flames flickering just about everywhere and the black smoke was piling out incessantly as if a dark beast had just been released.
The black-tarred felt coating on the roof of the porch was not fully engulfed but the edges were catching around the eaves and curling upward. I could reach the roof once I kicked away the cardboard bookcase which I promptly did with my bare foot.
I leaned ahead and placed the palms of my hands on the tarred roof. It felt very hot and sticky to the touch and I knew that this was not going to be the way out. I believed the whole roof must have been on fire underneath. I was afraid that if we got out on the roof it would collapse into the fire and we would be doomed.
I bent lower to get myself back in the room so that I wouldn’t hit the top of the wooden window sash. When my head came up inside the bedroom, reflexes forced me back out the window gulping for more fresh air.
My mind changed gears at this point. I started to repeat over and over in my head as if in a chant, you can’t stay here, you can’t stay here … to try and force my body to obey. As I pulled back in through the window for the second time I struggled to remain there and I knew I had to get both myself and Sharon out of here as soon as possible.
As I turned to go back to the bed to get Sharon, I could barely make out a figure coming towards me in the black smoke-filled room against the faint orange backdrop now glowing near the floor in the hall.
At first I thought it was Sharon but then Larry, my older brother, came running at the window without seeing me. I could make out the frightened look on his face and the urgency in his gait as he neared. As I stepped aside to avoid collision he pushed his head and upper torso out the window and was trying to get his leg up to climb out on the roof. When I realized he was attempting to get out, I grabbed on to his bare back and dug in my fingers to tug him backward into the room. My fingertips slid across the blackened skin on his back before finally taking hold.
Larry felt me pulling on him and I cried out over the noise of the rushing air and crackling sounds that the roof was on fire and wasn’t safe. Since he wasn’t fully in the room, he looked out again, paused and came back inside. I shouted to go back and try to get out some other way. He turned and was gone back into the still deepening blackness and out into the hall.
My mind was beginning to get fuzzy again. I was trying not to gasp for air and was taking deep breaths in the smoke. Down by my feet seemed to be less black and so was the closet, which was directly behind me. I backed up into the closet and crouched down as far as I could and took some more breaths. The air didn’t seem to be pushing towards the opening in the window in here like it was in the bedroom so it was easier to breathe although still smoky.
Almost instinctively my body ached to curl up in a fetal position and stay there but I forced myself to keep repeating in my mind, you can’t stay here, you can’t stay here … and I knew that in fact, I couldn’t stay there. I thought of Sharon somewhere close in the blackness and probably scared. I could see her bare feet on the floor close by near the bed where I had left her to wait for me. I had to get out and I had to get her out.
No Turning Back: Surviving the Linehan Family Tragedy
$19.95, paperback 205 pp.
Creative Book Publishing, September 2014