The story begins when my husband and I were living in a one bedroom apartment
in Takoma Park, Maryland.
We weren't yet married and I had been living alone. He was attending Georgetown
University and due to many reasons, not the smallest being financial, we
decided to move in together.
One Saturday evening, July 11th to be exact as I will never forget that date, we were home making dinner. It should be noted that it was also one of the hottest days of the summer, with the temperature slightly over a hundred degrees. We had one window air conditioner which wasn't able to cool down the whole apartment, but it did bring the overall temperature down into the 90's so it was at least bearable. It was my turn to make dinner and Michael was sitting by the bed, watching T.V. He noticed some dust in the air which seemed to be slowly falling. He glanced up and noticed that the small cracks in the ceiling were noticeable larger. In fact, as he stared at them they seemed to be growing.
From the kitchen I was unaware of any of this. One moment I was making dinner, and the next moment I hear Michael calling to me frantically. I went to him and saw him standing on tip-toe, hands on the ceiling. He said, "I am holding up the ceiling.". I said, "Huh?". I looked up and sure enough, the cracks had grown massive and he was indeed holding up a large section of the ceiling. And the cracks were still growing ever larger.
I cried, "What do I do?" as I stood there not fully sure I understood the situation. After all, it is not everyday that a ceiling detaches itself. He said, "Get everything out of the way!". Ok, I thought, get everything out of the way. Out of the way of the ceiling. The ceiling. That which is above everything. And I have to move everything out from under it? Yeah right!
I frantically tried to pull a few things away to the corners of the room, and grab the cats. Michael was saying, "I can't hold it much longer, it's too heavy". Well, I had never really thought about how much a ceiling weights. Have you? But evidently some ceilings are heavy as Michael can verify. He yelled that he couldn't hold it any longer, but he didn't know what to do to get out from under it. Once he let go it would fall down. I was in the kitchen at this point, which had a different ceiling and more importantly, a ceiling which seemed content to stay where it was.
Frantic and none too desperate, Michael was quickly running out of time. He needed to get out from under the ceiling, but in such a way as to not substain massive bodily harm. Since this particular ceiling was above our bed, Michael was at the foot of it holding the ceiling up when he spied the loft. Quickly making a decision (not that it was hard to choose between certain death and possible life), he dove for the bed under the loft, hoping it would shield him from injury. It did.
The ceiling was composed of a 2 inch thick plaster lath. Since we had the top floor apartment, there was blown fiberglass above that for insulation. It all came crashing down. The picture above was taken after we had carted away the huge chunks of plaster. The scariest part of the ordeal was probably the aftermath. Not the cleanup - that was just tedious. The scariest part was the realization of what could have happened. You see, when the ceiling fell it didn't just fall straight down. One side detached first and that came swinging down like a pendulum. When it reached the peak of its arc swinging, the other side then decided to become detached and the whole piece then came crashing down. Due to this, the ceiling more or less fell upside down. That is, the smooth painted side which had been above our heads for so long was now on top, and the plaster side with all the nails sticking out of it to keep it nailed to the rafters was now on the bottom.
The bottom, or underside, is what came crashing down. The nails embedded into whatever they landed on, which was most of our stuff. Since the ceiling was above our bed, it fell down on the part of the bed not protected by the loft (much to Michael's relief), the nails puncturing the blankets, sheets, and mattress. We spent much time with pliers in hand trying to pry nails out of the floor and other personal objects. The scary part is now more obvious perhaps. If the ceiling had decided to wait 4 or 5 hours before falling, we would have been sleeping snugly in bed, unaware that we were about to be skewered from above. Even scarier is the thought that our two cats normally sleep at the foot of our bed and they would have been in the direct path of the falling debris. I can't imagine that they would have survived. The loft would have protected our heads and upper chests, but from the stomach on down we would have been exposed. I don't even know that Michael and I would have survived, with all those nails I am sure we would have suffered some ugly wounds.
What if we had been at work when the ceiling collapsed? If the cats had managed to avoid the falling debris, they would then be wandering around all day in the fiberglass, cleaning themselves to get it off, and thus ingesting it. Not a pleasant prospect either. Michael and I both agree that it is best that it happened while we were at home, though we can't say that to this day we don't look at ceilings with trepidation.
Ah, your ceiling has fallen. Now what? Well, I ran over to the resident managers apartment to get help while Michael began hauling the larger debris out of the apartment. I pounded on the resident managers door until she opened it. Now, several months back I had told her that I had noticed hairline cracks in my ceiling and they seemed to be spreading (though very, very slowly). She said not to worry about it and that large trucks rumbling past the old building caused them and if she patched them they would just return. She said not to worry about them. So I didn't. Anyway, here I was several months of not worrying later, regretting it. When she answered her door I told her that our ceiling had collapsed and that we had a terrible mess on our hands and we needed help. She said, "Wow, that's the third time a ceiling has collapsed in that building".
THIRD TIME! You'd have thought that when I mentioned the cracks in the ceiling she would have put two and two together, but evidently math was one of the classes she skipped in school. She said her husband could help us for a little while. When I asked about a place to stay for the night since our apartment was unlivable (what with the fiberglass covering everything), she said she had one empty apartment but that we could only have it one night since she was showing it to renters the next day. When I asked her about a hotel room she laughed at me. Ah, had I been less poor I could have afforded one, and a good lawyer too. Luckily Kristin and Andy let us stay with them that first evening.
Anyway, the cleanup was grueling and tedious. Everything we owned had to be washed (twice), and I am sure we inhaled quite a bit of the fiberglass, even though we wore face masks. Luckily I had the foresight to have purchased renters insurance a year before, so while the management didn't help us replace any of our damaged items, my renters insurance covered everything. Just to note, Michael and I did speak with a lawyer, but he said that unless one of us was injured or we had property loss exceeding $5000 dollars (or thereabouts) it wasn't worth it to try and sue them for damages.
Two months later, after much searching, we moved into a newer, nicer apartment which had good ceilings. To this day we still occasionally glance up.
Last Updated 1/7/98