In the haze of a thick cloud of smoke, Kelly and Andrew Whitman stumbled out of the dining room with little direction and took off down Maryland Avenue, feet as hot as sausages under the fire.
With seats on fire, the shy couple thought at first they might still walk out into the blackness. However, as Kelly, a civilian, turned the corner onto Dayton Street, the rain broke and smoke began to reek from a light haze in the street.
It was well after midnight, Valentine’s Day, and the couple had just destroyed their wedding photos, scented candles and the stuffed sheep they’d planned to serve as gifts.
Then came the comforting thought of their mother, who had led the couple to their late grandfather’s gravesite not long ago. How could they forget him when so much was going wrong?
Catherine Kelly, Kelly’s mother, closed her eyes. Was this all a dream?
As they continued down the road, what could she see at all? Whose house was it? What was a fire? Where was it burning?
Her son thought the worst: “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Turning a bend to return to City Lights, a beloved watering hole with high ceilings and exposed brick walls, Kelly, her turtleneck stitched with pink clouds, started a panicked jog. Flames shooting from the doors could be seen from other streets, and smoke coming from the barroom was visible for miles. No one was safe.
Andrew, fighting back tears, joined Kelly and started walking. Too many people and cars in the street, he thought.
A police officer drove along the side of the road, a serenely smiling figure against the sky. Another officer’s cruiser went past a few times before stopping, flashing lights flashing.
“Get out of here!” Officer Mark Spelller yelled.
The man in the red T-shirt, his boots shined by a damsel in distress, was Spelller. He was an old friend of the Whitmans and had helped them in every situation that night.
“Get out of here,” the officer said, retreating again. “We’re going to put out the fire. You two can stay with me if you want.”
Kelly and Andrew arrived at City Lights. It was midnight, 13 hours since the fire started, and the first thing the Whitmans noticed was the men’s room door that had been flung open. The fire, they had assumed, was set into motion by someone, and it would be hours until it was extinguished.
“You’re going to be out of a couple of tuxedos,” said Alex Skinner, the bartender.
“We’ll figure out a way to salvage something,” the Whitmans replied, as if they hadn’t just destroyed a wedding at the height of evening.
Skinner’s assistant, Josh Becker, went to work as his boss pulled out gauze and towels. He rinsed down the bathroom with cool water and then scrubbed it down dry with hoses. Then he doused the sink in an orange bucket.
“Azzurri,” a friend of the Whitmans, is a housekeeping crew. They unicycle through City Lights before closing the door. “Azzurri, they didn’t set the fire,” Becker chanted as he tamed the flames with acrid oil. “Azzurri!”
The happy couple watched as Becker pounced on fire hose after fire hose. Before long, the chaos was neatly contained.