Firony: How I Was Almost the Next Chicago High-Rise Fire Headline

(Photo: As a nub these towers were born, to a nub they may yet return.)

Nine days ago my Marina City apartment almost burned down. Besides awful, that would also have been ironic since I had only just gotten done blogging about the folly of Marina City management replacing evacuation maps with laundry room memos throughout the 61-story East Tower (my tower), and the spate of recent high-rise condo fires in downtown Chicago.

Right before I left for the Chicago blogging community’s Ugly Sweater Christmas Party, I saw a flash of light on my balcony. I assumed it was someone’s first-time visitor taking a photo of the city from a neighboring West Tower balcony. Evening flashbulbs happen a lot at the corncobs during holidays, so I didn’t pay much attention.

I didn’t even remember the flash when I got back home six hours later. But two hours after that, I wondered why my TV and everything else plugged into an outlet in my living room and hallway suddenly stopped working. I tried to reset the breaker to no avail. Each time, the circuit tripped–and my cat wandered over to my floor-to-ceiling windows to peer outside. I texted the landlord of the problem, rewired my TV and computer to working outlets on my kitchen circuit, and went to bed.

The next morning I remembered the flash of light from the night before and finally clued into why my cat kept walking over to the windows. Sure enough, the balcony outlet had shorted out–big time. There was black char and evidence of burning on the outlet cover and up the back of the timer I was using for my balcony lights.

I was horrified to realize every time my cat walked over to the balcony, he was probably seeing another burning flash from the outlet that I couldn’t see from the breaker box in the back of my apartment. And that the outlet had probably smoldered for eight hours–six of which I wasn’t even home.

Lest you think an arcing balcony outlet does not an apartment burnout make, let me assure you–here at Marina City, that can easily be the case. If it weren’t for the old Marina City wives’ tale that our concrete and old-school plaster apartments take six-to-eight hours to burn through, the age of our wiring and electrical hardware would makes me nervous to live here. (In fact, a neighbor about 15 floors above had an apartment fire from a faulty outside outlet that caused the fire department to break down her door while she was out.)

There are three punch lines here. First, the landlord couldn’t fix the outlet when he arrived three days later to check on the problem. Though he did rip the old outlet off the wall and leave me with taped hot and neutral wires dangling in midair.

Second, because Marina City was designed in the late 1950s and opened in 1962, the outside outlet…wasn’t a modern, outside, all-weather outlet. But for good measure, was wired into an inside power circuit, meaning no fewer than 5 outlet boxes and 10 sockets couldn’t be used in my apartment until someone fixed the outside box.

That someone turned out to be me, with the advice of a DIY website and an Ace Hardware employee and a healthy dose of trepidation. Well, really, scared-out-of-my-freaking-mindedness that I would manage to make the apartment burn down anyway from my debut outlet-replacement skills. That didn’t happen, and the new, weatherized outlet and my internal power are all running smoothly. The original culprit seems to have been the age of the outlet and winter weather–most likely, ice and/or condensation forming in the unused socket.

That third punch line? The irony of hearing a hovering helicopter and emergency vehicles nearby while I was out on the balcony rewiring my faulty outlet. I kept thinking, “That sounds like another high-rise fire response.”

It was. And just by the skin of my teeth, it wasn’t for me.

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