Let me start by saying I didn't really intend for this site to be a personal blog. But a lot has happened since I started Kitschy Cat Vintage, and this is a big part of the story.
We had moved into our small apartment just before our wedding in 2016. It was filled with our recently acquired furniture, wedding gifts, and a lifetime's worth of memories and collections. Everything we owned, we had crammed into our 650 square foot, third floor apartment.
Around 2:00 PM on Monday, January 22, 2018, my husband had just left for work. I was still in my pajamas, working on taking photos for my Etsy shop while our cat, Waldo, napped peacefully on our brand new bed we had just gotten for Christmas less than a month prior.
Futurama played in the background as I took some product photos for my Etsy shop. I had just finished staging a photo when the fire alarms began to sound. I was confused– They had just tested them the week prior. Why would they be testing them again? We didn't get a notice like we had before.
I was in my pajamas. No makeup, no bra. I had taken a shower the night before and, because of that, I wasn't wearing any of my jewelry––including my wedding ring. I went into the bedroom closet, grabbed the cat carrier, and stuffed Waldo inside. Once I put on my coat and boots, the alarm stopped. I debated letting Waldo out, but then I smelled the faint scent of smoke as I stood in my living room. I turned off the TV, walked right passed my laptop (filled with over a decade of files and memories,) and walked out the door, testing the heat of the doorknob before I opened it. It was cold. I was safe.
As I began walking down the stairs, I realized I left my purse inside. I did what you're not supposed to do and went back for it, locking the door behind me once more. Someone was probably burning their lunch on the stove and I figured I'd be back in a few hours.
I didn't know what to do from there. It was cold and unseasonably raining instead of snowing. Waldo was crying in his carrier. He hates being in there. I had debated a week prior about donating it, since my parents have a larger one I could borrow for vet visits. Thankfully, I'd kept it stored in my closet.
I went to my car– I had finally gotten a good parking spot close to the building for once. I put Waldo in the back seat and looked back at the building... and saw smoke. But not a lot of smoke, just enough to look like fog in the rain. I saw a few other neighbors leaving the building attached to ours. They had suitcases and I thought, "Why would you pack a suitcase? It will be over soon. You're not supposed to grab anything when the alarms go off, you're just supposed to leave." But man, if I don't regret packing a damn suitcase. I had time. And I'll always regret that.
I tried calling Grant, but all I got was voicemail. I Snapchatted some friends about it. I got out of my car and asked some on-lookers if they had any information. Firetrucks arrived and blocked me in my parking spot. I called my mom and she said she'd be there soon.
My phone mysteriously started dying after being fully charged just an hour before. But luckily, I met a woman who lived in a different building in the complex and she had a portable charger she let me use. She kept me sane while we sat too close to the burning buildings. For an hour, I walked around the complex in the rain with Waldo in hand, soaking my pajamas and boots.
It still wasn't clear how serious it was.
The fire appeared to have started in building 7, and we lived in building 8. We shared a wall with building 7, though. Then everyone I had contacted showed up around the same time: My mom, my dad, my grandpa, my aunt, my father-in-law, and finally Grant. And as soon as everyone arrived, the fire spread to building 8.
We watched the firemen longer than we should have, but we were waiting for the apartment management to talk to us. Then my neighbors began to arrive. They all had pets. But none of them were rescued. It was heartbreaking. I felt relieved but guilty at the same time because I had Waldo with me.
News crews showed up. More and more fire trucks from different suburbs arrived. My car clearly wasn't going anywhere. Everyone cried as it became more clear that this wasn't going to end anytime soon. As I stood in the wet grass in the rain, I closed my Etsy shop from my phone. My parents took their rental off Airbnb since it looked like Grant and I would be moving in sooner than we thought. My friends began calling me asking what they could do to help.
Grant and I had just gotten renter's insurance three months prior. I contacted my friend who works in the office while Grant called his mom, who was on vacation out of state. My friend told me about our personal articles policy and that's when I realized I wasn't wearing my wedding ring. And that's what finally made me cry.
The apartment management gathered us in the clubhouse to discuss our options. We were all offered a free stay at a hotel down the street, the American Red Cross was contacted to help us, and an emergency crew was dispatched to explain what to do next.
One by one, we all left the complex and made our way to our "new" house. Grant and I were supposed to buy this house in the summer once our lease was up, but that plan was advanced by several months. My parents bought the house next door to my grandpa's through a tax sale just the past summer and, after a ton of work, had been renting it through Airbnb.
We were met with an outpouring of love and support.
My parents packed us a suitcase with essentials and took me over there. Grant and his dad met us with pizza and beer. My brother bought Waldo a new litter box and some litter. Grant's sister managed to talk a vet into giving her a bag of Waldo's prescription cat food without the actual prescription to show them. Then our insurance agent showed up with burgers, homemade scotcheroos, and a check to get us started. My aunt started a GoFundMe for us and began collecting clothing donations all over town. A few of our friends came over with groceries, toiletries, and clothes. We had a big ol' pity party, but we still had hope.
The next few days were kind of a blur. Grant's job gave him the rest of the week off, but I didn't have that option. My mom took me shopping the following day, but where do you start? It was overwhelming. First, we didn't know how damaged everything was. We assumed it was bad, but many items would be salvageable. I didn't want to buy things that I didn't need, yet for the time being, we had nothing. I started with just my clothing staples, but I honestly don't remember what else I bought that day. I was in a fog.
For the following couple weeks, my aunt was over daily with more and more clothing donations from the community. The GoFundMe was taking off and I was surprised by how many people donated to us––Even people we didn't know, or barely knew. The local KCCI advertising department that works with my parents' shop donated a ton of clothes and kitchen items. I could not believe how generous strangers, and family, and friends were being. It helped restore faith in humanity for me.
...Yet I felt guilty. Because out of the 24 apartment units affected by the fire, I'm sure we were the only ones that got to move into a house immediately with their pet safe and sound. I felt that we didn't deserve such generosity because we were so much luckier than most.
About six weeks after the fire, we were finally allowed back in the building. This day was supposed to be the day we put on our boots and gloves and filled totes full of our belongings salvaged from the fire. But the day before our appointment, we got a call informing us we could not actually enter our unit. It had been condemned. This broke our hearts all over again. We didn't think we had much hope left, but getting this news proved we had been more hopeful than we thought. But we had to see it for ourselves, and our insurance adjuster needed to see it too.
We arrived, signed some liability waivers, put on our hard hats and protective eyewear, and made our way to the building. There was no longer a roof above our bedroom and burnt beams stuck out the neighboring structure. As we climbed the familiar staircase, a campfire scent filled the air. I remember noticing how strange it was that the stairs were still in good shape.
Our once colorful home was desaturated by the damage and debris.
Two workers removed the board that had replaced our front door and we were left with a sea of black and white sepia tones. Our once colorful home was desaturated by the damage and debris. At least two feet of insulation covered the floor. Everything else was black with smoke. I could see daylight from the hallway and kitchen– two areas that were previously windowless, and were now wall-less. It was officially a total loss.
I filed the insurance claim the week after the event. Luckily, or maybe unluckily, I had just sorted through the entire apartment after Christmas and reorganized everything to accommodate our new gifts. But that meant I had a pretty clear idea of every inch of the contents and some pictures to back it up. But the claim couldn't move forward until the adjuster took pictures in the beginning of March, so the claim wasn't finalized until the end of April.
The cause of the fire was never determined, and the building was finally torn down in November.
But thankfully, even though we were in limbo for three months, it all worked out. We finally officially purchased our house on April 30, 2018. And that's when it finally felt like home.
Even after all that, I still believe that everything happens for a reason. We had just gotten renter's insurance after having lived there for over a year without it. I didn't donate that cat carrier that was "just taking up space" in the closet. I had just inventoried every inch of the apartment. I had decided to put off my errands for the following day and to just stay home and work on my Etsy shop that day. After a busy season, no one had booked the Airbnb for the month.
While it's easy to focus on the negative things during huge life events like this, I had many more positive things to think about.
My cat and I left safely. Grant was okay. We immediately had a new home waiting for us. People are inherently good and kind. We had an amazing support system of friends, family, and in the community.
Now that it's been the better part of a year since this happened to us, it's gotten much easier. We've done so much work around the house that it finally feels like ours. It turns out that our true friends are the ones there for you no matter what, and things can be replaced. These are such simple lessons that seem obvious, but sometimes it takes a huge disaster to realize what really matters in life. ■