As we moved forward, we passed people who were dancing and singing along with the music, even with the alcove now visibly on fire. They could only have thought that it was all part of the show. The smoke was dark and had nowhere to go, so it began to fill the room. It was inconceivable that anyone would delay exiting the building, and I didn’t think to say anything to them as I was whisked past them.
With the stage engulfed in flame and the fire continuing to advance quickly across the ceiling, the band suddenly stopped playing. It seemed that everyone became aware that their lives were in danger all at once. The sound of shattering cocktail glasses and beer bottles could be heard all around. There was no panic. People just dropped their drinks and moved quickly away from the fire. Almost all of them headed toward the front door.
Then the lights went out and the screams and shrieks of terror precipitated a stampede, snaring Fred and I in the middle of it. The crowd, which had seemed so sparse and navigable just moments before, congealed at once and our progress slowed to a near stop. It was pitch black. I was coughing from the smoke. Everyone was body to body. There was nowhere to go.
I began to get pushed and shoved violently from all directions as people became more panicked and scared, desperate to escape. I could feel Fred’s hands on my back, urging me forward the whole time, guiding me and keeping me on my feet. I realized that we had gotten close to the inner set of swinging doors near the ticket booth, which was just inside the main entrance.
“GO! GO!” Fred screamed behind me. I was hardly aware that a fire alarm had been blaring until I realized that I could hardly hear him. Still, to this day, I can clearly hear Fred yelling this in my ear. These were the last words he spoke to me.
The crush of the bodies was squeezing us apart, and then Fred gave me one last massive shove. Right after this, I felt his hand slip from my back. I immediately turned and looked behind me, but he was gone.
I could no longer see the flames. They were blotted out by the heavy smoke, which continued to drop lower and lower to the ground. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. From this death cloud an alien molten rain fell, dropping down from above like “black rain.” I could hear light bulbs explode and large glass windows being broken. I caught brief glimpses of the people closest to me. Their heads were all on fire. I didn’t appear that they even realized it. I did not know that my own hair had ignited and was burning at that moment. Like me, they were scared and just wanted to get out of this inferno. The heat was overwhelming and the gas was suffocating, but adrenaline kept everyone pushing forward.
I felt no pain. As odd as that may seem, it just wasn’t registering. Whether my body was going into shock or if some kind of survival mechanism had kicked in, I couldn’t tell you. I had never been in a situation like that before. Never have I been in fear of my life, facing the reality of my own death. Such thoughts of mortality, always fleeting at best, never seem real. It was creeping closer to me now, and I could not dismiss the reality of my situation.
It was surreal. People were running off in all different directions with their clothes and hair on fire. Some, realizing that their path was blocked, turned and headed in another direction. But there was nowhere to go. We were all trapped. People were calling for help. I was yelling Fred’s name, but I could not hear the sound of my own voice over the screaming.
I could only get as far as the ticket counter, but reversing directions against the tide of people to explore other avenues of escape in the darkness and closer to the fire was not an option. The front entrance and cool fresh air was in sight, I just could not get there. All movement had stopped completely. It was a total bottleneck. People were scrambling so frantically to get out through the main doors that some were pushed or fell to the floor in the threshold. In the frenzy, they were trampled and could not get back up. As others tried to scramble over them, they too became wedged in a tangle of bodies that resembled a living, kicking and screaming human wall. The exit quickly became plugged completely, preventing anyone else from escaping and dooming the rest of us still inside.
With forward progress stopped ahead, the pressure from behind was increasing as people tried to force their way out. It became a struggle for me just to stay on my feet. I knew I couldn’t resist this force forever, and that once I was on the ground I would have no chance whatsoever. If I wasn’t crushed or burned, I was simply going to run out of air. My breathing had become more and more labored as the fire continued to burn out of control, consuming all the oxygen with it. I struggled to get enough air into my lungs. I felt like a fish out of water. I thought, this is it. This is where I’m going to die.
It was very strange, and hard to describe now. I hadn’t given up, but it I knew I was close to death and I might not make it out. At that moment, my mind just seemed to accept this as inevitable. As if it was preparing me for that fate, all I could think of was Nicholas and Alex. I saw their faces and I prayed to God for them to have a good life and to allow them to forgive me for dying this way and leaving them without their mother. I remember feeling very peaceful, and as this calmness washed over me I fell. I don’t know if I was pushed or if I blacked out, but my head struck the floor and that was it. It seemed to happen in slow motion. I remember it clearly, the feeling on falling and the impact of my head on the hardwood. I thought I was dead.