I accidentally set my house on fire and it still haunts me

In the corner of my eye, I spotted a weird sparkly light that seemed to shine through my blinds.

When I looked over to the source, I immediately saw that my clothes dryer was alight with a load of laundry on it.

While cleaning my room and opening my windows for some fresh air, I had accidentally placed the entire clothes drier onto a candle.

My whole body was racing with adrenaline, as though someone had just injected my veins with electricity. All that was going through my mind was sheer panic.

I went over and tried to stomp out dripping embers that were landing on the carpet, but then I had to jump back as the fire started to stretch towards the ceiling.

Frozen in fear, I screamed like I had never screamed before. I called out the names of two housemates – the third was out at the time – and the word ‘FIRE’ but that’s all I could manage.

As it was only 10am, they were all still asleep in our old-ish, terraced student accommodation. The sheer volume of my shrieks alerted them into my room within seconds.

One of my housemates just said ‘leave’ and I did. That command released me from my frozen spot on the carpet so I grabbed my phone, which was on 4% battery, and rushed out of the house – trying to call 999.

When we got outside and I had reached an operator, my housemates started to knock on our neighbours’ doors as we could see the fire multiplying through my bedroom window. 

Within seconds, the heat and violence of the fire was too much for my window and it blasted its way through the glass. Watching the blaze was destroying me because I had caused this and it was all my fault.

Meanwhile, the emergency services worker on the phone asked me where I lived; I almost couldn’t remember because I was in full blown panic. My brain was melting – along with the contents of my room. 

I felt helpless (Picture: Steve Watson)

We lived just across the road from a fire station, so I knew they wouldn’t be long, but those few minutes felt like hours.

All that was running through my mind was what belongings I’d left behind, what items were being destroyed as I watched along helplessly. I almost went back inside just to grab my rucksack, which had my laptop, purse and sentimental letters from my granny who had just passed away. 

My housemate stopped me with a stern ‘no’. I had never known her to be so authoritative before, but I obeyed.

When the firefighters arrived within a few minutes, I was still lost in hysterics. Both sides of the street were lined with neighbours and people who were passing by just watching my fire.

I felt helpless, the damage was done and it was all out of my control.

Three fire engines pulled up outside the house; I was across the street and my view was blocked. I was almost glad I couldn’t see it anymore. I’d seen enough.

Although I was surrounded by strangers, I wasn’t listening to any of the hubbub or whispers around me. I was focused on getting through this and just staying near the fire engines.

Our whole section of the street had a dark grey cloud hovering over it, and I could taste smoke at the back of my throat.

I was sitting on the floor opposite my house when one of the fighters checked me over, told me that my heart rate was way over 100 beats per minute and my entire body was on alert. It was like every muscle and fibre of my being was an electrical current. 

They gave me some oxygen to bring my heart rate down, and to help if I had inhaled any smoke into my lungs.

All I could do was try to apologise as best I could (Picture: Alex Soundy)

My parents arrived as soon as they could after receiving my blunt text message. My dad was nearby and came just as the fire engines pulled up, while my mum turned up shortly after as I was receiving oxygen therapy, I looked over to her with the mask on and just felt so small.

I couldn’t imagine what I appeared like to my parents. Half in pajamas, half in loungewear, with mismatched socks on and a messy ponytail, being treated at the side of the road because of an unbelievable accident that I had caused. 

My parents were just as shocked about this as I was; to see the destruction from a minor mistake was frightening for them. They just wanted to make sure I was alright.

My housemates had nowhere to stay because the house wasn’t safe for us to go into. They were angry, and rightfully so.

All I could do was try to apologise as best I could, but it felt like I couldn’t say anything to make it better. There was nothing else I could do, except retreat to my mum’s and try to cleanse my body and hair of the smell of smoke.

I walked away from the house with only a few items, most were singed and reeked of smoke. I didn’t want daily reminders of my trauma – my brain had that covered. 

Mentally, I took away a lot more from this event. I had to put even more work into recovering my mental health with a new diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder. 

I had strong, haunting nightmares and would wake up feeling waves of heat rush over my face, like I was back in that room with the fire. I still have them occasionally.

I have to deal with my triggers – the most obvious being fire and smoke alarms. There are also BBQs, bonfires, cooking and even the mention of the word ‘fire’.

The biggest trigger I’ve had was on a film shoot for work experience. The smoke machine set off these howler alarms, and they were pure evil. When one went off, all of them went off, creating this high pitched siren call that burst straight through my ear drums.

The shock of this extremely loud, and hard to ignore alarm sent me into a huge panic. I had to hide myself away in an unused room. While I knew I wasn’t back in the fire, my PTSD put my brain there. My body was radiating the same urgent panic as when I was in my student bedroom.

I try to stay in control of this story (Picture: Saffron Watson)

That experience taught me that I have to be near others when fire alarms go off, so I know what’s going on – if it’s real or not. Instead of freezing up and panicking, I’ve learned how I can keep my cool by trying to investigate and being rational.

I have been the punchline to many jokes; people using my trauma for amusement. I don’t find it amusing that – more than four years later – I still get vivid traumatic flashbacks to when I was frozen with fear in my bedroom, pacing up and down my road on the brink of a full blown panic attack. 

When this happens I have to remind myself that it’s in the past; I’m in the present and I’m in control. I often smell smoke or phantom smoke, and have to investigate the cause in case it happens again. 

I recently had a strong PTSD episode and as part of my progress, I’ve been deconstructing what I did, how I felt and what thoughts ran through my head. The strongest thought I had was ‘what have I done? I’ve caused another house fire and I’ve ruined more people’s lives’.

I didn’t realise how heavily I still carry my biggest mistake.  

I was lucky that no one was harmed in my fire. I haven’t touched a candle since that day – 20 May 2016. Anything involving uncontrollable flames like candles and campfires, I have no part in. I don’t trust myself, and it’s not worth the risk. 

I moved back home permanently, after the fire. Creating that distance between myself and my trauma was good for me, although it isolated me from my peers.

I try to stay in control of this story – my story.

That’s how I try to cope. I have learned a lot in the past four years, and I have managed to glue myself back together – not perfect, but better. 

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