The Night My Nightmare Came True

Though I faced my worst fear in my mother’s death by fire, I surprised myself by surviving — and thriving

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I’m going to talk about terror — about truly coming face to face with what you fear most in life.

As a young child I had a recurring dream that my neighborhood burned down and took everyone and everything with it.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve,1986. I was 21 and living in Washington, D.C. My boyfriend at the time had invited me down to Richmond, VA for a New Year’s Eve party. We were driving there with another couple, then staying overnight and returning on New Year’s Day.

Like any 21-year-old smitten with her boyfriend, I couldn’t wait for my first overnight trip with him. As I prepared for the trip, I was listening (and dancing) to Earth Wind & Fire when there was a news interruption on the radio about a hotel fire erupting in Puerto Rico. My heart skipped a beat — my parents were vacationing in San Juan for the holiday week.

I called my brother and learned my parents were not staying at that particular hotel; in fact, they were staying on a different side of the island. Instant relief. I went about curling my hair, trying on a dozen different outfits until I found the right one and putting the finishing touches on my make-up.

Finally at 8 p.m., we began our 90-minute journey to the party.

Susan, back in the sun

Once in Richmond, we attended the bash until well past midnight, then headed to the Hampton Inn.

When we turned on the TV at the hotel, CNN was the first channel that popped up. Splashed on the screen were horrifying images of the hotel fire I had heard about earlier in the day. By now they were starting to count the number of dead and interview some of survivors. The Dupont Plaza Hotel fire had been set at 5 p.m. ET by a disgruntled employee and, within minutes, had spread from the casino to many floors of the building. Images flashed showing terrified victims jumping from windows, ambulance sirens shrieking in the background, and smoke billowing from every opening in the building.

Deep breath, Susan. Your parents were nowhere near the hotel. My boyfriend suggested, actually demanded, that I turn off the TV and go to sleep, and we’d find out all was okay the next morning. But the TV was like Pandora’s box for me; how could I shut it off? Thankfully, he won the argument. What I would have seen, had it remained on, would have probably caused me to go into shock.

My father was up next to be interviewed on the news.

The next morning, I woke up at 8 a.m., startled — an early hour for anyone on New Year’s Day. It was sleeting, which only added to the dreary feeling engulfing all four of us. We started our trek home slowly, because of the weather. Legend says that Virginians don’t drive well in freezing rain and snow.

When we stopped for gas, I decided to call the apartment I was staying in to see if anyone had called for me. Reaching into my jeans pocket, I fished out several dimes and dialed. My roommate answered the call before I could even blubber out a whisper of “good morning” and almost shouted: “Where are you and how far are you from D.C.?”

He told me my brother and cousin had each called before 9 a.m. A wretched feeling came over my body, and I felt as if I might throw up. I asked for more details, but he didn’t share any — just that I should hurry back. My head hung low as I wandered in a blur back to the car.

As we headed north, I stared outside counting the icicles drop from the sky as they smacked the sides of the car. Washington’s all-news radio religiously repeated the headlines every seven minutes with the increasing numbers of the victims. First 35, then 45, then 60 and up. The drive seemed to go on for an eternity. Remember, these were the days without Internet, smart phones, or even, in many cases, answering machines. There was literally no way to get updates.

Four hours after leaving Richmond, we pulled into my aunt’s driveway in Washington, D.C. Standing inside the front door were my cousin Anna and my aunt Arlene. I began my dizzying walk up the long staircase. When they opened the door, I knew that the worst moment of my young life had occurred. My beloved mom was missing and not expected to be found. I fell into their arms.

Ninety-seven people perished on that fateful day and left ninety-seven families and loved ones in utter despair. I came face to face with the nightmare that had plagued me as a young child. The fire had won this time. My life would be irrevocably changed forever; there was no turning back.

Nearly 30 years later, there are few days that go by that I don’t think of her and the senseless and tragic loss of her life. What I do carry with me is a strange and rather bizarre gift  —  that of having experienced one of life’s worst tragedies. I confronted terror head-on. It was challenging and harrowing — the hardest time of my life.

Like everyone else, during the last many years, I made it through the hurdles life tosses in our way: break-ups, marital challenges and an eventual divorce and restart, plus the all too familiar professional troubles. But this tragedy helped me through all of those. Ultimately, I survived. I endured. Today, my world is filled with magical and meaningful friendships, a brand new consulting career and a significant other who supports my ambitions.

And I know that no matter what life throws my way, I will eventually be okay.
Susan McPherson is a serial connector, corporate responsibility expert and strategic marketing/social good consultant. She lives and works in Brooklyn Heights and still vividly recalls the day she lost her mom almost 30 years ago. Find her on Twitter at @susanmcp1 and on the Interwebs at susanmcp.com.

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