Human Fire Hazards
by York Marryshow
A fire, especially a really roaring one at the dead of night or the weak hours of the morning, at precisely when it is at its most deadly, is a truly social occasion in Grenada, this exotic little Paradise of an island in the Southern Caribbean that has chalked up so many 'firsts' in history that one can justifiably describe it as unique.
Only 120 square miles or there about, it boasts the first Lady Governor in the Commonwealth; the youngest Senator ever; the No. 1 beach for natural beauty in the world; the smallest and youngest independent nation and at the same time the first to be unable to meet its financial obligation to its civil servants after only two weeks of self-rule.
"THE FIRE SET"
In this otherwise exceptionally charitable, hospitable and smilingly friendly island a fire is avidly, almost gleefully, seized upon as some sort of free, impromptu public entertainment by nearly every able bodied make and female within running distance of the disaster and who is not directly affected by its ravagings.
Using the glow by night or the billowing smoke by day in very much the same way that mariners of old navigated by the stars members of the thousands strong 'Fire Set' - as one is tempted to label these ghoulish, non-arsonist, burning fire enthusiasts - rush unerringly to the scene of the conflagration to take up ring-side 'standing room only' or balcony seats on the verandahs of friends and relatives and total strangers if the need should arise - well before the arrival of the first Fire Fighting Unit which, en passant, invariable and sportingly concedes the first round of the fight to the fire by default.
But for the firemen, when they eventually get there, struggling to wade through the sea of spectators in high wear rather than evening dress, one gets the otherwise analogical impression of being in a theatre or cinema foyer.
Groups of 'long time no see' friends greet each other and chat with the same composed affability about this and that and above all whether the 'performance' is a 'good fire' or a mere lousy waste of time.
At a really good, long fire the more affluent spectators can be seen being served with pony glasses and soda siphons, coffee cups and tea cups, and, presumably the various spirituous and non-spirituous beverages that go hand in glove with these social drinking paraphernalia.
Downstairs in the street the soliciting cries of hawkers working their way through the 'pit' of aficionados del fuego: 'Get you peanuts!' 'Chicklets for anyone?' 'Nice juicy oranges' - rub in this impression of attending a show ever more. It is just as though they had days before read the advance billing of a show entitled, 'Fire in Town Tonight' and stocked up their refreshment for sale well in advance.
Normally, if the 'Fire Set; would confine their search for kicks to just cracking nuts or sipping refreshments, without getting in the way of the fire-fighters, there would be nothing objectionable or hazardous about their presence.
Unfortunately (yet another 'first' for dumb-blonde of an 'Island in the Sun') popular participation in firefighting - whether for or against the fire is always difficult to tell - has spiraled to unparalleled heights that the fire units have found it necessary to cut out the traditional bell-clanging on to the way to a fire for fear of alerting the 'Fire Set' and attracting an even greater hazard to life, limb and property than the fire itself.
A series of near tragic comedies are responsible for this covert, superficially ungrateful, clandestine rejection of the 'Fire Set's' volunteer services by the Fire Department.
In the classic which has gone down in local fire history as the 'Scott's Street Fire', for example, in which one lady died, the 'Fire Set' were busy moving furniture and two youths, who in all fairness had been doing a good job could be seen inching along the first floor verandah with one of those antique monstrosities of a foot-machine that might just tip the scale at a ton. But they were making headway nonetheless, when . . .
Out of the blue, a 6'2" 190 lb. specimen of athletically conditioned muscle, rippling as though in affirmation of its legendary virility, turned up in the street below and began shouting: 'T'row it here. T'row it here' to the two already overburdened youths on the verandah; at the same time he adopted a stance reminiscent of a soccer goalkeeper just before the kicking of a penalty against him except that his head was too much aloft and his crouch somewhat minimized as a result.
Now, any people who could philosophically say of the political banditry of their leaders: 'If day wan to tief us dry or shoot us down as dey doing better dem that somebody else' and psychologically metamorphise someone else's disaster into a form of entertainment, must have a peculiar, recklessly warped sense of humour.
The two boys on the verandah were typical of the specie in this respect. Swinging the machine to and fro, and counting in unison: 'one, two, three', they let fly the machine straight at the check of Ebony Hercules down below.
Surprisingly and fool-heartedly, he did not make the slightest attempt to scamper out of the way of the manually propelled mechanical missile. Instead, as though posing on a stage and the machine a simple prop, he attempted to gather it on his hairy chest. The streets here are paved with asphalt - luckily for him - not gold - and this incident occurred around high noon.
Several eyewitnesses swear to this day that for minutes after he had been rushed to the hospital, the outline of dear old Ebony Hercules' giant body was clearly discernable on the pitch where he had crashing flat on his back at the moment of impact.
Rumours that the spinster-owner who eventually died as a result of burns was only accorded secondary consideration during the whole evacuation exercise by the "Fire Set' is generally discounted as maliciously untrue by the 'Set'.
Just as the law today does not bother unduly with persons stupid enough to attempt suicide, one would imagine that the authorities would not be seriously perturbed by the plight of those who choose to go around masochistically inviting machines to be hurled at them; and it is doubtful, therefore, whether this particular incident had any substantial bearing on the Department's decision to avoid volunteers as the Plague.
The memorable Savoy Hotel Fire of the late forties, however, provides the sort of occupiers nightmare that has many of them, resolutely preferring 'to let everything burn; than have any of these human termites 'rescue it' from the flames.
BULL IN A CHINA SHOP
The villain in the Savoy show, for example, was an otherwise extremely brilliant adolescent ho, unfortunately, is now a permanent inmate in the psychiatric ward at the General Hospital as a result of brain injury sustained in a cycling accident.
Riding a fixed-rachet racing cycle down one of those one-in-ten declivities that make up this hilly island of our one day, he attempted to negotiate a 90° narrow turning in a built-up area, rather than continuing straight ahead and into the water of the Carenage, after the bike had gone out of his control.
Of course he scored a flush flying butt at high on 50 m.p.h. on the very first wall he encountered on the corner.
A few people well believe that he must have been off his rocker to have attempted such a feat. Those who saw him in action in the Savoy Fire hold no doubt whatsoever, but instead maintain that the accident merely brought out his true mental state in sharper profile.
There was this very old lady called 'Nen Zay' who lived about three houses away from the burning hotel, in an even very much older over-sized matchbox which housed the most exquisite, delicately carved commodes and fragile coffee tables, and cabinets of mostly glass held together by wafer strips of mahogany, and containing breath-taking collections of silvers and silverware and Dresden China and figurines that seemed likely to disintegrate into opium powder if one were to look at them too hard.
Bullying his way through the crowd, the psychiatric case-to-be rushed into the old lady's veritable china shop and within minutes had 'rescued' everything worth rescuing from the flames by the simple device of hurling coffee-table, cabinet and chaste-couch, Dresden China and figurines - just everything he could lay his hands on - blindly through the windows to either land broken beyond repair on the pavement and the street below, or sufficiently in tact to be grabbed up by the fans as mementoes of a memorable show.
One could not help getting the impression that he was employing the type of tactics common in fighting forest fires - you know, chopping down a whole area of trees to stem the spread of the fire - and everyone was looking forward to the grand finale when he would turn his demolishing attention to the powdering, weather-beaten building itself.
Unfortunately for the spectators, a blazing section of the neighbouring building which had long caught fire fell into the backyard cutting off our gallant Knight of the Coffee Table's retreat; with the result that instinctively, one could hardly say cowardly in the circumstances, he shifted the concentration of his energies from saving anything more to the slightly more urgent task of saving his own skin.
Part of the remains of a man, whose head has been recovered and who is reported to have in fact perished in a poker game in the same hotel just before the fire broke out, had already been retrieved from the smouldering ruins, and one could more or less see the villain's predicament mirrored in the crowd's hopeful expectancy that a second death, a 'live' one this time, would provide the conversational climax to the evening's performance.
There was a hush, which no sooner turned into a long erotic sigh from the sadistic viewers as they saw him dive from his perch on the window sill where he had sought refuge from the attacking flames. They could not really ask for more in a free show.
But Sir Psyche of the Coffee Table disappointed them. In mid-flight he caught hold off a piece of piping for hanging advertising boards jutting out from the face of the house completed one of this cartwheels they do in gymnasiums, and then dropped the remaining ten feet or so to the ground as nimbly as a kitten, to the accompaniment of a prolonged 'O-oh no-o' from the crowd, but most assuredly to the relief of poor old 'Nen'Zay' whose house was never touched by the fire but who lost more than anyone else in the long run.
[The late] York Marryshow, columnist, The Torchlight, issue of 16 March 1975, ©1975 Torchlight
Appreciation to Leslie Pierre for permission to reprint this story.