The Scariest Day of My Life

Today marks one year since the scariest, most intense day of my life. 

In one morning, I lost everything I owned and nearly escaped death. Now that it's been a full year, I wanted to share the story of what happened and what I've learned over the past year.

Disclaimer: This story is raw, and so are the photos. 

In 2014, I was freelancing full time, living and working in Murray Hill, NYC with my then girlfriend, Casey. We lived in a 2nd floor walk-up apartment on 2nd Avenue with 2 cats. (I'm just now realizing this pattern of 2's.)

We had enough work to keep us afloat and busy. In our little free time, we would prepare delicious meals, hang with friends and listen to my dad's old records. Life was good in that place. 

It felt like home.

Summer rolled around, and the city got hot and sticky. Friday, August 1st was when it happened. 

Casey had just left for work, and I was finishing up a couple hand-painted signs for her cousin's tattoo shop. 

I had my paints set up on the table near the window. Carefully brushing in each letter as I listened to an episode of my favorite podcast. I was in my element.

Taken the night before

Taken the night before

Towards the end of the podcast, I remember hearing a noise from outside my window. It sounded a bit like a pile of newspapers dropping on to the ground. I glanced out my window and didn't see anything strange, so I went back to painting.

About a minute later, I started to smell something. The odor smelled like car exhaust. I looked out the window again and noticed some smoke moving slowly across my window.

Where's that coming from?

Must have been a car accident outside or something. After all I lived on a busy intersection. A little smoke outside is no big deal. This happened pretty often, so I didn't think too much of it at first.

But I realized something was off. My apartment faced in the back of the building and had no view of the street. It would have need to be a very serious accident for the exhaust to have creeped through the alleyway.

The smell got stronger every second. The smoke began to come in through my air conditioner, even after it was turned off.

I started to panic.

To stop the flow of smoke coming in, I lifted the heavy air conditioner out of the window and onto the floor, slamming the window shut.

Inches away from my face, the window shattered with a loud CLANG!

The glass fell down onto my apartment floor and across my socks. The other two windows blew in. CLANG! CLANG! Leaving shards of glass strewn across the table where I had been painting.

Totally frightened and panicking, I realized I had burned my hands on the window.

Now with a clear view, I looked down through the window frame to see that the rear side of the building was engulfed in flames.

The tiny enclosed backyard area that was normally filled with trash and recycling from the neighboring restaurant was now a fiery inferno, rising higher and higher.

My living room quickly flooded with thick, dark smoke, scaring the cats under the bed. I was starting to cough and the smoke was getting in my eyes. 

All of this happened in the span of 2 minutes.

Alarms blaring, I pulled my shirt above my face to shield myself from the smoke.

Running totally on survival instinct, I saw a clear exit and ran right out the front entrance.

There was no time to put on shoes or grab anything. The last thing I remember seeing before leaving was the fire rising up and coming in through the windows, curving up onto the ceiling. A scarring image.

Out on the sidewalk in my socks, I called 911 on my iPhone, which I luckily had in my pocket. Within a few minutes swarms of fire trucks, news vans and helicopters rolled in as a slew of brave firefighters tried to put out the fire from every angle. Heavy, black smoke billowed out of the backyard, rising high up and dispersing into the city skyline.

Here's a video that a bystander caught from his apartment window. If you look closely, you can see both firefighters climbing up on the roof of the building to extinguish the backyard blaze.

A video posted by Lee Levine (@leeryanl) on

They closed off both streets at the intersection, as well as the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel around corner. Traffic piled up, horns honking, people screaming. I sat on the curb, helpless. 

This couldn't be happening, right?

I wished so badly that this was just a terrible dream and that I just would wake up.

I called my brother to let him know what was happening and that I was alright. He helped calm me down. Then I called Casey and told her to come back from work, trying to downplay the situation a little bit so she didn't completely freak out.

Crowds of people gathered, taking photos and videos on their smartphones. My neighbors arrived one by one, looking up in shock. 

News reporters tried to interview me about what was happening. I gave them a few words so they would leave me alone.

The only thing we could do was wait, hope and pray that no one else was in the building, and our furry friends would make it out alright.


Around 2:30 pm, we were finally able to go back into the apartment. Casey went in first because I still didn't have any shoes on. Sadly, it looked like what you see above.

Almost everything was unrecognizable. Most of the exposed brick in that photo did not used to be exposed. Piles of drywall and burned furniture frames everywhere. We dug through the ruins to find a few valuable things that made it through – passports, hard drive, my wallet with all of the cards melted together. It all looked like burnt toast.

The cats were nowhere to be found.

One of the only things that made it out was a rough sketch that I had been working on earlier in the week. It was wet from the fire hoses, but the design was still intact.

I found it to be strange that this piece of paper hadn't been consumed with everything else. Despite the chaos and confusion, I saw it as a gleam of hope that everything would figure itself out and be alright.

What I Learned

Reflecting on this event is not easy for me. We still have no idea how it started... Writing this brings back a lot of the fear and emotion, but I thought it was only right to share a few of the realizations that helped me get through this tragedy.

Appreciate what you have.

This seems obvious, but it's SO important, and always worth a reminder. It's easy to stress and complain about little things. But in the grand scheme of it all, they don't really matter. It's so rare that we step back and notice how much we actually do have and how truly blessed we are.

To this day, we still don't know what caused the fire. The sad truth is that we don't have control over so many factors in our lives. We are dealt a hand and it's up to us to embrace it.

It was only when lost everything when I realized how much I still had.

Over the past year I've become much more grateful for the things that I do have. I have my health, my relationships with family and friends, a roof over my head. Did I mention we found one of the cats? She was badly injured but she made it out and recovered like a trooper. I'm grateful for you, kitty.

Right after we found Pocket

Right after we found Pocket

Things can always be worse.

The aftermath was incredibly tough to say the least. But I realized shortly after, that I was actually pretty damn lucky.

Even though it was extremely hazardous in there, at least there was a building to go back into. Had the fire happened a couple hours earlier, or if I had been sleeping in that day, I might not have made it out alive. As I type these words right now, I am so thankful to be here. Everything else is a bonus.

Hope for the best. Prepare for anything.

I never thought something like this would ever happen to me. I mean, what are the odds?

No one thinks it will happen to them, until it does.

I thank my father for always making sure I am prepared. In this case, he implored me to buy renter's insurance on the apartment and all of my possessions in it.

We paid $20 per month to an insurance company for about a year and a half. After the fire, we had to list out everything in detail, but in the end we were reimbursed for almost half of what we lost — a great starting point to rebuild.

If you're on the fence about getting renter's insurance, please get it! Even just for the peace of mind. I don't wish anything like this upon anyone but these things CAN happen. Best to be prepared.

What goes around, comes around.

Even before the fire, I considered myself to be a positive and empathetic person. I make a conscious effort to not complain or put out negative energy into the world. Because of this (and some other factors), I have garnered a circle of friends who care about me. Even though I may not see some of them that often, we all know that we are there for each other when we need it.

On the day of the fire, instead of posting photos of my ravaged apartment, I shared a photo of the "Optimist" drawing, letting everyone know what happened and asking them to send their good vibes our way.

We were blown away by the outpour of help and positivity that came in the days following. The recovery would have been so much harder and longer were it not for my incredible support system around me.

Experiences and relationships over things.

Another silver lining of this situation was the chance to start fresh. I basically owned nothing, so I was able to rebuild my life from the ground up, starting with just the basics. No more collections of pointless items.

It's funny – we attach stories and emotions to physical possessions. The camera my friend Brian brought back for me from China, the rug I found on a trip to South America, the ceramic mugs I gave to Casey for her birthday. And yet, when these things are taken away, we are still left with the valuable part – the memories.

Besides a few things, everything that we lost was replaceable. It was just stuff! Of course I wish it didn't have to be torched like that, but in the end I wasn't too upset to get rid of a lot of it.

I do (rarely) miss having my library of art/design books and vinyl albums to draw reference from. At the same time, I can't put into words how free I felt after being able to start with a blank canvas.

A token of appreciation

About a month after the fire, we found a new apartment and began replacing just the items that we really wanted. I finished the Optimist design and made some letterpress prints to send as a thank you to everyone who helped.

Fast forward a year and that's where we are today. I've grown so much these past 12 months, physically, mentally and spiritually.

A few weeks ago, Casey and I went our separate ways. It was my longest relationship to date (4+ years), so it was not easy to adjust at first. Stepping back to look at the big picture once again, we soon agreed that it was best decision for both of us.

I'm not sure what the next chapter will hold, but I'm totally excited to keep growing. I hope you will come along with me for the journey.

One last thing...

If this story resonated with you, please feel free to share it with someone you know who could benefit from a small change in perspective. 

Link to this post:
Watch the video here:
Behind the scenes:

Eric Friedensohn