Eleven-year-old Rosa woke with a scream as a hot spark touched her cheek. Smoke filled the room from the cracks in the ceiling above her bed. She quickly jumped from her mattress to the floor as her quilt burst into flames and part of the ceiling came crashing down.
Scared for her life, Rosa ran down the long, dark apartment hallway and burst through the doorway to her mother’s room.
“Fire! Mami, FIRE!”
Rosa shook her mother, Luishana, awake, and pointed to the smoke now billowing through the hallway. Luishana jumped from her bed and pulled open the window to the fire escape. She turned and grabbed Jorge, her three-year-old son from his crib.
“Out! Out! Go! Go!”
Luishana pushed Rosa through the open window and onto the landing.
“Quickly, quickly. Andale! Hurry!”
As they descended the fire escape stairs, Luishana banged loudly on the windows of the other apartments. “Get up! Get up! Fire! Fire!”
The wail of fire engines echoed through the darkness.
Rosa was afraid but she imitated her mother and shouted as she passed each window.
“Get up! Get up! Fire! Fire!”
An elderly lady, Mrs. Hernandez, poked her head out of a third-floor window and pointing her cane at Rosa asked, “What’s all the noise?”
Rosa pointed to the flames above. “The building is on fire. Come quickly.”
Mrs. Hernandez disappeared inside her apartment and returned a moment later with a cat in her arms. “Take Sophie,” she said and handed the cat to Rosa.
Rosa took hold of the cat with one hand and helped Mrs. Hernandez through the window with the other. She looked up. The top of the building was ablaze.
The rusty fire escape ladder made a gut-wrenching sound and jammed about eight feet off the ground. Luishana tried to lower it to street level. People streamed out of the nearby buildings, gathered in the street below, and watched as the first police cars arrived.
Luishana hung on to the fire escape ladder with one arm, held Jorge with the other, and lowered him into the outstretched arms of an old man in the crowd below. She next lowered Rosa and Sophie the cat to safety. Mrs. Hernandez stood on the flight above, frozen in fear. Luishana bounded up the steps to the old woman who protested going any further.
“I can’t! I can’t!”
“Dios! Come! Come!” cried Luishana.
Smoke and flames filled the sky from the windows above them as Luishana shepherded the old lady down the last few steps of the fire escape. A muscular young man from the street grabbed the rungs of the fire escape ladder and swung up to assist Luishana. Together they lowered the old woman into the street. Finally, Luishana hung from the ladder and jumped to safety, scraping her knees on the ground.
The firefighters unwrapped their hoses and began to battle the flames. Ladders were raised. An ambulance arrived. Rosa, Luishana, Jorge, Mrs. Hernandez, and Sophie, her cat sat huddled together in the chill of the night, as the blaze was subdued. An emergency medical worker came over and offered them warm blankets. Still in their pajamas and nightgowns, they wrapped the blankets around themselves to protect themselves from the cold.