Friday, August 29, 2014

Fire!



Fire!

If you want to get someone's attention quickly, just yell out the word, 'fire'.

As I was getting ready for work, I suddenly heard loud voices. They were not the typical exclamations of local Cameroonians sharing the town gossip or shouting into their mobile phones trying to be understood in spite of the poor network connection. Instead, these were animated, staccato voices accompanied by an atmosphere of excitement.

I slipped into my shoes and poked my head out the front door in curiosity. Was there anything exciting happening that I was missing?

“Call SONEL!” I heard several people shouting as a flurry of running feet dashed toward the rear of the clinic building.


Not having the slightest clue what SONEL's (the electric company) private phone contact might be, I instead dashed out the door to join the other people popping out from all four corners of the hospital compound. Young men on their way to work or play detoured from their path along the street to help. The ground's keeper who mysteriously appears and disappears at various points in the hospital yard and reminds me of the Blake's “sneaky” butler, Emilio, in the film Mr Deeds, slipped into the pressing throng. Patients with malaria emerged from the hospital dragging their IV poles with them, yellow bags of intravenous quinine swinging in the air.  Their  fever and headaches were temporarily forgotten in light of the current drama unfolding outside.

“Fire! The building's on fire,” I heard one young athletic patient carer shouting as he came running back toward the hospital, out of breath.

The man was right! There was fire erupting from the clinic. At the rear of the building on the far corner closest to the road, the main electric cables snake from above and down to the meter and main power fuse box/distributor. From there, the cables stream out to the clinic and the hospital building.

Flames burst forth from the meter box on the outside wall in a dramatic flaming fashion. The white and yellow flames crackled and sparkled like an old-fashioned home fireworks display. The Forth of July, New Year's Eve, and Guy Fawkes Day celebrations all rolled into one giant theatrical production and compressed at the exterior angle on the clinic wall. The odour of melting plastic wafted toward me as I pressed forward within the excited crowd. The sparkling flames popped and snapped without restraint.

“Water, bring water,” one person yelled.

“No, it's an electrical fire. No water!” another person answered.

The milieu of confusion was palpable.

“Anyone have a fire extinguisher?”  I almost laughed at that one.

“Call SONEL,” I heard again. Some young men dashed off to find a technician.

I surveyed the scene unfolding in dramatic fashion now. How does one turn off the electrical power supply to stop an electric fire when its the main power box that's on fire? A man in a short-sleeved, blue lab coat, coattails flapping as he jogged through the gate to the fiery scene called for a ladder. Somehow someone brought him one. He climbed up and cut the main wires coming off the power line.

A couple other engineering men founds buckets and filled them with sand, throwing the dirt on the flames and effectively dousing them. (Only breaking one window pane in the process).

Flames out. Wires cut. The excitement quickly dissipated. No more fire. The almost instantaneous crowd of 50 plus people from off the street mysteriously disappeared as swiftly as they'd arrived on the scene. Only a handful of us remained behind, tutting over the charred exterior wall and twisted, melted plastic-coated wiring. The smell of molten plastic still permeated the air. It was a sad memorial testifying in silent anguish to the electrical woes that had been plaguing the hospital for many months, now terminated in this explosive fashion. Talk about “going out with a bang”.

Postscript:
No one was injured. No interior damage other than the broken window occurred to the building structure. SONEL came and replaced the meter and box the next day... many electrical issues remain to be sorted but we are all thankful for some emergency lighting now in the hospital. Keep Seventh-day Adventist Hospital in your prayers.