Sunday evening at about 6:33 pm (plus or minus a few seconds), the Evacuate Building Alarm in our apartment BLARED. By BLARE, I do not mean the annoying cricket sound of your household smoke alarm.
While our apartment building alarm does not come complete with a recorded “Please evacuate this building” message as does this Utube example, it registered loud and clear. Years of school fire drill practices, and two personal housefire experiences, kicked in.
I grabbed my purse, passports, Curtis (who wasn’t at all happy about being yanked away from his computer) and walked the seven flights downstairs and directly out the front door as we had been taught to do in all those school daze fire drills.
Of course, we were thinking—hoping--it was probably a false alarm. And, a part of us wondered if marauders were attaching the building again. Yes, marauders!
Our building stands at the edge of the sea, overlooking usually calm, innocuous, Gulf of Paria. A few years back, so the story goes (Curtis and I happened to be away at the time, but this is what Mimi & Brian told us): In the dead of night, marauders in boats—pirates perchance, drug runners more likely—tried to storm our building. Our keen eyed security guards spotted the approaching boats, threw on all the floodlights and set off the alarms, thus frightening the marauders away. Hooray!
Needless to say, although my ears were plugged (Curtis’s weren’t…do not ask me why?), all senses were on high alert as we cautiously, quickly, yet calmly made our way down all those many flights. Here’s the weird thing: although ours is the central staircase in the building and each floor has about 10 apartments, we were the only people walking down. Are we the only ones home this Sunday evening? I wondered. Could this be only a test of our Emergency Alarm System and everyone in the building but us had received the memo and thus were ignoring it? Did they know something we didn’t know?
Finally, as we rounded the 4th floor landing, we encountered a couple. “What’s happening?” They asked (I think. I did not unplug my ears to find out). “That’s the evacuation alarm,” I said, it what I know was my duh, what do you think, dummy voice, and continued onto the next flight down, hoping they’d follow our example.
The elder Chinese woman who lives on the 2nd floor and knows every single thing going on, was instead of leaving, walking back into her apartment when we rounded that curve, which made us think that it was indeed a false alarm. But there was no way we were going to back down—or, in this case, back up, especially as at the back up at this points was 6 flights.
The Emergency Alarm was still BLARING as we excited. After walking a safe distance from the building, we looked up to see what we could see. The building wasn’t practically deserted. Far from it. Rather than evacuating, most of the occupants of the other apartments were hanging over the walkway railing, looking around and down, craning their necks to see what the heck was going on?
Watching them, watching us and each other and wondering, all I could think of was What if? Visions of Twin Tower victims jumping to escape the flames, of the balcony in Berkeley collapsing, of the earthquake damage in Kathmandu, of so many tragedies flashed through my mind.
As suddenly as it has sounded, the Emergency alarm stopped. With the residual siren still ringing in our ears, Curtis and I stood outside for a time. A few families, with children in pajamas, came strolling back into the apartment complex. They, more obedient that we, even, must have gathered at the Muster Point as per evacuation protocol. They smiled and nodded as they passed and we did too, all of us feeling as though we'd earned high marks on a pop quiz of sorts. This time, the Emergency Alarm had been only a test. But, What if?