Smoke billows out of a decorative ‘well’ that leads to the car park under the author’s apartment complex, where a fire consumed five cars last week..
(photo credit: BRIAN BLUM)
With our nerves already on edge from the Color Red rocket-warning sirens and the heartbreaking mounting death toll as Operation Protective Edge raged on last month, the thick black smoke billowing out of our parking garage did not bode well.
I was about to jump in the shower when my son burst in and told me to get dressed and shut the window in my bedroom... now! We live in an apartment complex in Jerusalem that is built around a central courtyard. At even intervals along the length of that common area are mock “wells,” intended to remind passersby of, say, the architecture of the Old City or Nahlaot. The wells are actually just openings to the underground garage, letting in light and creating natural ventilation.
(Cynics say that the architects put them there to keep local kids from using the courtyard as a soccer field.) And now they were belching smoke like a 19th-century coal-fired power plant.
My first thought as the smoke rose, first in fits, then so fast and thick that we couldn’t even see out of our windows, was that a missile from Gaza had miraculously scored a direct bull’s-eye in the well. But there hadn’t been a siren and there was no boom.
The fire trucks arrived within minutes, and the source of the smoke was squelched.
When we were finally able to come out of our house, the smell of burned plastic, metal and fabric was overwhelming. Five cars in the garage had gone up in flames, one after another in a row until it reached our parking space, which was empty (my wife was out with the car and on her way home at that very moment), before jumping to the next spot to torch our downstairs neighbor’s rental car.
Speculation began among the neighbors even before the police inspector had spoken his suspicions. It was definitely not an accident, he said, that was for sure. An arsonist (or arsonists) had entered the garage, smashed the windows of each car separately and tossed in some lit material, which caused the cars to catch fire. He deduced this because in one car only the interior burned. At some point, the fire may have jumped to another vehicle on its own. If the firefighters hadn’t come in time, the inferno could have engulfed the entire garage of 70 cars.
OK, if it wasn’t an accident, what was it then? Was it nationalistic? Had the war in Gaza reached our parking lot by proxy? A debate broke out as to what constitutes “terror.” Is it terrorism if the target is property and not human life? But what if the cars had exploded? Maybe that would have taken down the building, resulting in loss of life. There are upwards of 200 people living in our apartment complex.
I did a quick Internet search on “car gas tank” and “explosion.” It turns out that all those cars that explode in the movies – it doesn’t really happen like that so often in real life. First, gasoline itself isn’t explosive.
It explodes in a car’s engine, but only after it’s been vaporized and turned into gas, then mixed with air before introducing a spark. If you put gasoline into a cup and light it, it will burn, for sure, but it won’t blow up. (Standard disclaimer: Kids, don’t try this at home.) And while there is gasoline vapor in the tank, you need to add a source of fire to get it started. Fire won’t normally travel up a fuel line to the tank, because there’s not enough air in the line to keep the flame going. So someone would have to be smart enough to know to punch a hole in the tank and insert the fire that way. I don’t think most arsonists have degrees in chemistry.
Ours clearly didn’t.
The other possibility that began floating around in the email discussion among the residents was that the arsonist had a criminal motive. We have a friend who works in the police. He took a quick look at the case in the computer and came away convinced that organized crime was behind the attack.
“Every day, I deal with burned-out cars,” he explained. “Usually, it’s someone who is trying to send a message. They don’t always know – or care – if it’s the target’s specific car. They just want to make the person feel unsafe. Or to get the neighbors to put pressure on him.”
And why couldn’t it be terrorism, I pressed? “Torching a car takes too much time,” he replied. “If you want to kill someone, you’d be much more effective by bringing in a small bomb.”
Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any more comfortable.
In fact, the entire experience has left me feeling deeply ill at ease in my own neighborhood, in a different way than being under potential missile attack. This seemed more personal. Someone came into our garage and set our cars on fire. We’re not on the seam line of Jerusalem, let alone the front lines in Gaza; this is a quiet suburban neighborhood where kids play, we walk our dogs and pick up after them and stroll over to the local Aroma to get a cup of ice coffee and a croissant on a Friday morning.
Walking home the next night after dark, I found myself startled by noises and shadows in a way I hadn’t before the attack.
We have a great va’ad habayit (“house committee”), which moved quickly to hire a clean-up company to deal with the mess and the stench, and is now discussing the merits of putting in a closed-circuit camera security system.
A few days ago, we received word that a suspect had been caught with a nationalistic motivation against the state. However, he was subsequently released for lack of evidence.
We may never know what the true motive was for the attack on our building.
The only consolation I can summon up is the hope that, as the old saying goes, lightning rarely strikes the exact same spot twice. Illogical and probably not true, it still gives me some small comfort. Which is about as good as it gets in this long, strange summer of war.