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Weekends in downtown Philly, depending on the weather, a pleasant and kindly middle-aged woman let’s call “Kate” sets up a festive flea-market sidewalk sale in front of the center city high-rise where she lives, and it’s irresistible.

Every Saturday and Sunday, I look for her. “Kate” is the Queen of Re-Gifting. Her prices range from ridiculously low to reasonable. Each week it’s like a treasure hunt. You never know what you’ll find. And the conversation’s worthwhile, too. I love having her in my neighborhood.

Her merchandise is a mixture of brand-new and gently used. Mostly, she sells high-quality items donated by the other tenants in her upscale apartment building. Books! Clothing! Cosmetics! Christmas decorations! Jewelry! Knickknacks! Once someone even divested herself of a whole unused month’s supply of expensive name-brand designer diet-food, complete with calorie-free chocolate milkshakes.

Last weekend, a fire forced “Kate’s” terrifying 5 a.m. temporary evacuation from her 21-story building. The blaze broke out after an electrical transformer in the basement blew four hours earlier and apparently set off a chain reaction, shutting down power to the building so when a backup generator subsequently failed, that resulted in the fire alarms not going off to warn residents, who found that almost as upsetting as the fire itself.


Instead, firemen had to go door to door to warn people.

“Suddenly a fireman in full regalia was banging on my door, saying I had to leave my apartment immediately,” she recalls. “I was totally flabbergasted. There I was, sleeping in a quilted bed jacket, my air conditioner blasting until the power went. I was in such a rush I couldn’t figure out what to take with me. Luckily, I grabbed my purse. You never know in these situations if you’re coming back or not.”

To complicate matters further, good soul that she is, “Kate” was cat-sitting for a friend. After making sure the cat was safe with building maintenance, “Kate” shepherded three elderly neighbors out with her. One lady hadn’t felt well all week and was pale, weak and perspiring. Another was so ill she had to be carried away on a stretcher. And with the electricity off, the elevators weren’t working. So they fled on foot, descending floor after floor in frightening pitch darkness, not knowing what had really transpired until later.

Naturally, everyone wondered: Was THIS one of those awful terror attacks Homeland Security keeps issuing warnings about?

And so the bewildered evacuees – more than 100 residents, some clutching blankets, others carrying their pets, many awakened from sleep – congregated outside their building. They were invited to wait across the street inside a nearby sports bar that opened its doors to the evacuees since it was still being cleaned after last call.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross was arranging their rescue, preparing facilities across town to accommodate the evacuees. Shortly thereafter, the evacuees were transported by bus to a school gymnasium several blocks away, stocked with beds, hot coffee and bottled water.

Despite being in a strange place under such difficult circumstances, “Kate” was so wiped out by the emergency, she fell asleep immediately. When her two sisters saw news reports of the fire on television, they went out of their minds with worry because they couldn’t reach her. They kept trying to call her to make sure she was all right. So exhausted by her ordeal, “Kate” was slumbering on top of her cell phone, which was turned off.

Miraculously enough, no one from the building was injured. The fire was confined to the smoky basement and extinguished quickly. But because of unsafe conditions, residents weren’t permitted to get back into the building until the next day around noon, after the power went back on and the alarm system re-calibrated. Speaking of which, one woman actually slept through the entire thing, and was reassured by a maintenance man, “Don’t worry, I’d make sure nothing happened to you.”

Someone asked “Kate,” didn’t she have another place to stay besides the school gymnasium after the disaster? “Sure,” she replied, “but I didn’t want to leave the other ladies I brought with me. I needed to make sure they were OK, and that meant I had to be there with them until it was over.”

Later on, she related this story to me modestly, as befitting an everyday heroine.



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