One night a woman set fire to the facility we were in, to suicide by fire. She was under house arrest for arson. She was a giant woman. Taller than me and twice my size. The facility was set up like a minimum security prison. We looked after a couple of murderers there who had significant disabilities and intellectual impairment. There were magnetic locks on all drawers, windows and doors. Even the TV was locked behind a Perspex screen box.
The police had taken her out for an appointment that day and returned her in the evening. She was asked if she had a lighter. She said no.
I could see her section from the office but there were 5 gates and doors between us and her. The fire alarm rang. It’s pretty common for these clients to sneak in cigarettes. Nonetheless, I went in as quickly as possible. She had lit the bed on fire and one wall was already burning. I ran back and got an extinguisher. I emptied it on the blaze. I ran back and got the second extinguisher by the time I returned the fire was triple the size. I emptied the 2nd extinguisher pointlessly on the flames.
I yelled at her to get out but she sat down in the fire. I realised then that she didn’t want to get away. She wanted to burn.
The smoke was pouring out of the flames. Thick black smoke from the chest up.
In my mind, I thought I could get her out if I grabbed a blanket, punched her in the head and knocked her out, rolled her onto the blanket and carried her out like Santa Claus.
The other staff had already run away from the facility to get away from the fire. If I left her, she was gonna be trapped because of the magnetic locks on all the doors and gates. She would’ve died a really horrific death.
I realised in that moment she had been so abused that she was already dead inside. Me yelling at her was just reinforcing her reason to burn. I thought a bit of love might get her out alive.
I sat down next to her. It was getting really hot in there. Fortunately sitting down I was underneath the smoke. If you’ve ever been in a fire you’d know what I mean.
She looked at me like I was an idiot. I asked her something unprofound like, “how are you?” Her incredulity and hatred turned into tears. She understood that I was there for her. I wasn’t going to make her do anything. She started sharing her story. I suggested we move outside to continue talking somewhere cooler. She agreed and we walked away from the flames. No one got hurt.
I learned a lot from that experience.
I’m also passionate about helping people in domestic violence situations. I’ve supported many victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Prob over 100. My family went through the most extreme experiences of domestic violence. No one was there to provide genuine honest unbiased solutions. I know better than anyone that innocent people die when good people do nothing.