8 Dec

It’s been just under two weeks since my car caught on fire. In spite of some pretty heavy guilt, I felt like I’d been doing a good job moving forward. I’ve called insurance and the DMV and we’ve begun the hunt for a new car. One of the things on the related to-do list, though, was going to the salvage yard where my car had been moved, in order to remove my personal items.

I dragged myself to the lot, which is practically in Mexico. (San Diego friends, it’s in Otay.) I had called ahead to find out what I needed to do when I got there, and Mike armed me with the extra keys so I could get into the trunk. After checking in and signing some papers, the person working there told me to wait outside and they’d bring the car around.

A few minutes later, this giant front end loader thing came speeding down the rows of cars. My car was on its lift, being tossed around as the larger vehicle zoomed by. The driver set it down and I was able to approach it.

From the back, it looked like my usual car. A beautiful shiny red color. They’d taken the license plate off the back, which was unsettling. I’d hoped to retrieve my alumni license plate holder. More than that, though, it felt like an erasing. Like, it was just a dream that it was my car, that I owned it, that it got me and my family so many places for so many years.

From the front, it looked even worse than I remembered. Both sideview mirrors had melted, Dali-like. The whole front, where the paint melted off during the fire, was an eerie orange. The metal had rusted. The engine compartment was a twisted mess of melted wires and components. Someone at some point put a plastic sheet across where the windshield would have been if it hadn’t exploded.

If the outside was shocking, the inside was a hundred times worse. It smelled awful. A smell I’ll likely never forget. The smell of burned plastic and smoke and soot. all the stuff that had landed on the ground after the fire was out had been scooped into the inside of the car by the tow truck driver, so there was a weird mix in the front seat area of 1) stuff missing because it melted and 2) stuff that didn’t belong there, like broke glass and burnt plastic pieces.

Even the stuff in the backseat was wet. Michaela had asked me to retrieve couple of things that were here in the back seat, but they weren’t salvageable.

I pried open the trunk and considered my options. My “go bag” for work was in there, full of the stuff I’d need to do my job in the event of a countywide crisis. It felt a little ironic to pull that out of the trunk, but I did. Some of the other stuff I left, and some I took.

It was really overwhelming. I was surprised at how emotional I felt. I guess it truly hit me, looking at the car now that some time has passed and I wasn’t in the thick of it anymore, how bad the fire was and how much danger we were in.

That was a couple of days ago. Today, though, I got a call from the woman who took the girls to safety while the fire was raging. I called her that night, to say thank you, but got her voicemail and hadn’t heard from her since.

She refused to let me do something for her, though I offered. She and her mom were leaving the hospital, where her mom, who has cancer, had undergone a biopsy. She said they were driving the other way when they saw us and the car on fire and noticed that everyone else drove on by and didn’t stop. She said her mom had had a car catch on fire once, and she was afraid the car was going to explode, so she decided to make a U-turn, to come help us.

The lady said Michaela was so brave and did such a good job trying to calm down her friend, who was practically hyperventilating. She said Michaela was poised when she called Mike, and that he was very reassuring as he talked to Michaela. The woman said Michaela is very special and is going to grow up to be an amazing person, and that it was due to me and Mike as parents.

It was fascinating to hear what the situation looked like from the outside. And of course it was touching to hear her perspective on Michaela. It was also a great reminder that we can all be good Samaritans, and of the difference someone can make in your life.

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