Who Started The Fire?

Who Started The Fire?

Photo by Colin Lloyd / Unsplash

Last Thursday was weird.

In the afternoon I found myself outstretched on the couch, my face propped on my hand which dangled sideways above my elbow which dug into the meat of my thigh, my knees splayed in front of me like butterfly wings as I refreshed my Twitter feed on my phone, unblinking. My thumb flexed and extended as it tapped the screen in a perpetual, spasmodic motion reminiscent of a nervous tic. That morning Elon Musk had reversed his decision to display the "Official" gray check mark on accounts which previously had a "legacy" blue check (he would later reinstate the "Official" identifier, but only the following day), so I was floating through an ephemeral twilight zone of accounts with newly acquired blue checks posing as public officials and major brands, rapid-fire-poasting as often as they could before they were inevitably suspended. Musk had expected the $8/monthly subscription to weed out bot farms, but he had clearly underestimated the determination of human trolls.

I saw Mario flip off the world from a Nintendo account with a blue check mark. Then came George Bush and Tony Blair commiserating over killing Iraqis. Later that day, Eli Lilly announced that insulin was free.

Everyone was outdoing each other and competing for lulz. I had caught a glimpse of this internet before - somewhere in the late 2000s and early 2010s, during a more obnoxious, manic time in my life - and the chaos felt disconcertingly familiar.

Then there was the SBF melodrama, which has unfolded more quickly on Twitter than anywhere else. Last Thursday the idea that he had merely made mistakes still sounded tenuously plausible - that it had all been just some terrible, fatal risk miscalculation rather than the massive, lying-through-teeth deception that it has turned out to be.

To be honest, I barely knew who SBF was before last week. As someone who has hardly dabbled in crypto - I bought a small amount of Ether in 2017 in order to collect CryptoKitties - I was more interested in the adjacent philosophy and philanthropic movements which SBF was known to support. I'd seen his name in relation to Effective Altruism and Longtermism but I often confused him with another EA juggernaut, William MacAskill. It all reminded me of my own brief foray into libertarianism as a young, idealistic university student learning about Austrian economics. During my free time one summer I'd attended a seminar on "liberty and society" and listened, fascinated, to professors argue that taxation was just as bad as - if not worse than - slavery. In the end I filed libertarianism away with the other hobbies from my youth which had turned out to be as intellectually stimulating as they were lacking in heart.

Thursday afternoon receded into evening as I continued scrolling and refreshing, slowly accumulating a throbbing stiffness near the base of my skull. My shoulders were crimped in a permanent shrug.

And then the fire happened.

It was close to midnight the first time our doorbell rang, accompanied by a frantic knock at the door and the sound of footsteps galloping and then diminishing. Neither Ulrich nor I budged at first; we had each finished a glass of red wine, our first of the week, and were enjoying the tingly lethargy which tugged at our limbs. After a few seconds' delay Ulrich managed to wrest himself off the couch, but nobody was at the door by the time he'd crossed the ~10 meters to get there.

The doorbell rang again about 20 minutes later. This time I sprung up as well, my curiosity piqued. Taking turns at the peephole, we looked out at a brightly lit but empty hallway. Ulrich and I exchanged glances, not sure whether to be amused or spooked. I started to say that it was most likely a children's prank when it suddenly occurred to me to look outside. I opened the door to the balcony and saw three fire trucks blocking the main intersection where our apartment building is located, with firemen wearing oxygen masks carrying equipment towards us. My stomach flipped. Our next door neighbor stood below us, waving her arms. "Should we come down?" I yelled towards her. "Yes!" she shouted back.

The next minutes were a blur. Ulrich grabbed our passports; I tucked my laptop into its puffy carrying case. Then I froze as I saw two pairs of saucer-eyes staring up at me from beneath the dining table. I asked Ulrich if I should retrieve George and Pippa's carriers from our storage room downstairs. Ulrich winced, then shook his head; if there was a serious fire, we wouldn't be able to make it to storage and back, finagle both cats into their carriers and still leave the building before it was too late (George will stroll voluntarily into his carrier but Pippa remembers too many traumas involving hers, including the transatlantic flight from Detroit to Düsseldorf four years ago; she won't go in her carrier without a mortal combat against Ulrich and I, who often resort to wearing oven mitts to protect ourselves from her piercing claws.)

My heart fluttered as I realized that we were really going to leave the cats behind. I brought my face closer to George's, then to Pippa's, and nuzzled each of them with my nose. I asked myself if I thought they would die, then pushed the question away before I could answer it.

Ulrich and I opened our apartment door to see a crew of firefighters in the hallway. In their gas masks they looked like giant flies wearing trench coats. I gestured wordlessly towards the stairway; the fly-face closest to me nodded. The air was ashy and smelled heavily burnt - I was surprised we hadn't noticed it inside our apartment.

Outside, I saw that not just our intersection but the entire length of the main road within eyesight had been closed off, empty of cars and activity except for the glow of blue fire truck lights as they echoed across a midnight sky. The smoke which had hung over us in the hallway was imperceptible from outdoors. Our neighbor rushed towards us to explain that she had been the second one to ring our doorbell but left thinking we might have already evacuated the building. She pointed at a shadowy figure who stood on the parking deck above us; a man in a gray hoodie, carrying a bottle of beer and smoking a cigarette. He was the one who had rung all of our doorbells the first time, she said. She was shivering, having left her apartment without her jacket; we offered her to warm herself up in our car.  

A few other neighbors straggled out of the building after us, including a woman with her pitbull and a rawhide bone, but most residents were nowhere to be seen. I opened the unofficial WhatsApp group chat for our building. Several people had already asked about the fire, a few apartments' smoke detectors having been set off. One resident had posted a video of smoke rising outside his window. The most recent message in the group sat unanswered: "does anyone know what's going on?"  

We stood outside and watched as a steady stream of firefighters and police officers flowed in and out of the building. A handful of local press people, one transporting a camera and tripod, stood gawking from the median of the main road. Two young faces peered out at us from behind the curtain of a propped open window. A ladder from one of the trucks stretched upwards towards the sky; the local press would report the next day that it had been used to rescue a stranded couple. All around me I saw the ongoing effects of the fire without witnessing the fire itself.

One police officer interviewed the man in the hoodie, who alternated between his beer and cigarettes. I thought he seemed nervous and wondered if the police thought so too.

Eventually Ulrich approached an exhausted-looking firefighter as he carried equipment out of the building. Then he nodded towards me and the small group of neighbors who had gathered nearby, indicating that it was safe to go back inside. Apparently something had caught fire in one of the two stairways on our side of the building - luckily for me and Ulrich, the one farther away from our apartment - but the firefighter gave no additional details.

We found George and Pippa on the same chairs where we'd left them, crouching underneath the wings of our dining table. Their facial expressions projected both earnestness and childlike innocence and they leaned into our hands and purred as soon as we reached out to pet them.

Ulrich and I decided to finish the rest of the wine, although we'd planned to limit ourselves to one glass each, and settled back onto the couch, our attention seeping into the cozy glow of our phones' OLED displays. I returned to scrolling Twitter. A newly created blue-check Tesla account posted: "BREAKING: A second Tesla has hit the World Trade Center." Sleepy and warm but not drunk, we eventually retreated to bed.

The group chat was abuzz with texts, voice messages and video updates when we woke up the next day. One video showed someone descending the stairs in the aftermath of the fire towards a pool of slushy black soot. Another resident had obtained new details from the police: cardboard and plastic packaging remnants from a kitchen installation had been found in a corner underneath the stairs. Someone must've tossed a cigarette butt or some other flammable object into the pile on their way past it.

One member of the group wrote that the new kitchen was hers, but the contractor had assured her that they would send someone afterwards to pick up the trash. That had been about a week before the fire. Someone responded that it was each tenant's responsibility to ensure that all trash related to their apartment was properly disposed, and that she might be liable for damages. Yet another resident disagreed; responsibility surely fell on the person who threw something flammable onto the pile.  

Our neighbor shared a 70-page PDF titled "Guidelines for Fire Damage Restoration" and informed the group that she would be requesting a 20% rent reduction as compensation for the bad air quality which lingered in the halls. "I'm a doctor," she wrote, "and the air in the whole building is definitely toxic now."

The floodgates had opened. Two days after the fire someone shared a picture of a long, meandering squiggly line which had appeared overnight in one of the hallways. It reminded me of Harold and the Purple Crayon except in graphite instead of purple.

"First arson, now vandalism??" replied another member of the group. Someone cautioned that it could have been an accident - moving boxes or a stray zipper which caught against the wall, perhaps - nevertheless, we should all be more respectful of shared spaces. He reiterated his complaint (which he had previously shared in the group chat) about people stacking unwanted leaflets and ads on top of the mailboxes instead of disposing them properly in the paper bins.

A week after the fire someone found an unfastened bicycle seat lying on the parking deck, which prompted another resident to recall that several bikes had once been stolen off the racks behind a gated-off part of our building, and that he had heard Eastern European voices in the area when it happened. His comment led to the rehashing of more events which had taken place before Ulrich and I moved in. There had been a flood which damaged several apartments and the property manager had been slow to make repairs. Two tenants had been arrested for throwing beer bottles onto passing cars on the main road, and the building's reputation had consequently suffered in local Facebook groups which slammed the new construction for its ostentatious appearance and equally ostentatious residents.

Almost everyone seems to think that there are untrustworthy people living among us - especially those who, for unknown reasons, aren't in the group chat. Several residents are in favor of installing video cameras throughout the building. One person has suggested reporting every incident to the police until the property manager becomes more responsive.

In the midst of reading these messages I found myself thinking back to my old life in the U.S. and wondering if I would've ever seen community messages like these while I was living there. Then I shook my head to clear my thoughts, realizing it was a trap. It's tempting to call this ugly, group-fueled speculation a uniquely German thing, but the truth is I've seen glimpses of it everywhere I've lived.

It's been ten days since the fire and the stairwell still sits abandoned in soot, a melted plastic wall lamp dangling vertically by a thread next to yellowed walls and blackened cobwebs. One resident plans to sue the property manager for not taking timely steps to rehabilitate the stairwell, which leads directly to his apartment. But the property manager says that police are still investigating and haven't cleared the space for clean-up.

And so, despite all the chatter, a lurking question remains: who started the fire, and - if it wasn't an accident - why? I fear that we may never really know the answer beyond its bare bones: that there were a series of unrelated events which became entangled and, under the perfect conditions, sparked a fire. But we humans are thirsty for straightforward answers and someone to blame, so we continue to ask and ask, flexing and extending our thumbs, always refreshing for the latest crumb of information which might lead us the littlest bit away from this intolerable uncertainty.

Black ash and soot underneath the stairwell of an apartment building.
The charred aftermath.