‘I could hear the roar of the fire’

Jessica Bijlsma with her king python Terror

‘I could hear the roar of the fire as the windows burst’

A large apartment building where many students lived burned down last Wednesday. Jessica lost her studio apartment in the basement, but managed to save her most precious possessions: her pets.
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Does this ever happen to you? You’ve just settled into bed, and then you have to pee. What do you do? Leave the bed, bare feet on the cold floor, only to have to warm up all over again when you get back? Or decide your bladder can just wait until morning?

Jessica Bijlsma (24), chose the latter. She’d had a long, productive day cleaning and doing laundry. She had just snuggled down into her fresh blankets and was too comfortable to get up again. Contented, she closed her eyes and went to sleep in her basement apartment at the Lopendediep. It was around nine thirty on Wednesday evening.

But her bladder woke her up at ten past two in the morning. Her sleeping brain didn’t register the yelling outside her door, or the fire alarm going off on the floor above her. ‘That alarm went off all the time. People were always yelling to shut it off.’

It took Jessica a few minutes to realise what the people outside were actually yelling: ‘You can’t go back inside!’, she heard, ‘it’s dangerous!’ Why were people yelling about danger? It was then that she became aware of the noise above her.


‘Everything was collapsing upstairs. I could hear the roar of the fire as the windows burst.’ She realised it wasn’t a false alarm: her house was on fire. An overheated laptop had caught fire in one of the ground floor rooms, setting the bed it was perched on ablaze. The fire quickly jumped to the curtains.

I rushed outside. All the other people from the house were there, as well as police and the fire brigade

Jessica would only hear the whole story afterwards. But that night, she only had one thought: run. She grabbed her bathrobe but couldn’t find the sash, so she held it closed with one hand.

‘I rushed outside. All the other people from the house were there, as well as the police and the fire brigade’, Jessica says. She went up to the emergency services to tell them she had made it out when she had a sudden, sickening realisation.

Her pets – Maika the chameleon and Terror the king python – her babies – who she would often cuddle and take outside to bask in the sunshine – were still in their terrariums.

They were still inside.

Back into the burning building

Jessica pretended not to hear the police calling after her as sheturned and ran back into the burning building. She had no choice. She first kicked down the door of her neighbour’s room, just in case she was still asleep. No one was there.

Once inside her own room, Jessica rushed to remove the lid from her python’s terrarium. But then the fuses blew, and Jessica was plunged into darkness. Feeling around for a stressed out snake in the dark is a very bad idea, even when it’s your own snake.

‘So I quickly grabbed Maika, as well as my phone, because I knew it was on the bed. I’m not sure I was even scared. All I could think was how little time I had and that I had to save as much as I could.’

A few seconds later, she unsteadily made her way back up the steps to street level. She only had one slipper on her foot: ‘I have no idea when I lost the other one.’ One hand held her bathrobe closed, the other clutched Maika. One of her babies was safe.

All I could think was how little time I had and that I had to save as much as I could

She couldn’t start looking for the snake until the fire was out. She had to wade through the water, accompanied by a police officer with a flashlight. ‘I think he was pretty scared’, Jessica recalls. She’s used to people recoiling at the words ‘king python’, even though Terror is young snake and less than a metre long.

‘He put the flashlight down so I could see, and then quickly left the room.’ Terror had left his terrarium and had made it to the water on the floor. Jessica wasn’t surprised. ‘He’s extremely inquisitive. Whenever I lift the lid of his habitat he immediately pokes his head out to have a look around.’


Jessica was the only person to return to the charred rooms that night. She took the opportunity to grab some of her favourite clothes and shoes, as well as a few other small things. She realised the studio was unsalvageable. It was filled with water from the fire brigade’s efforts to put out the blaze. The floor, her wooden furniture, the couch, and her bed had all been destroyed.

‘The house was this old building that I’d completely fallen in love with. I had my own little kitchen, a mantelpiece, a box bed. I felt so safe there.’ Now the house has been condemned. Jessica is staying with her parents in Harkstede until she can find a new place to live. She has been washing her clothes over and over again in an effort wash out the smell of smoke.

Terror and Maika spent the first few days after the incident in a shelter. Jessica was allowed to pick them up during the weekend. They seemed fine, but Maika was completely black. ‘You know those rings that change colour according to your mood? Chameleons have a similar mechanism. When they turn a dark colour, it means they’re scared. But when I stroked his head and talked to him he calmed down a bit.’

No insurance

How is Jessica coping with everything? ‘Talking about it really helps’, she says. Her friends have been great, taking her out to dinner to cheer her up and creating a web page to try and raise money for her. She’ll need it, because she wasn’t insured against fire.

‘I kept telling myself that I had to take care of that. It’s only three euros a month or something.’ But she worked long hours, got tired at night, told herself she’d do it some other time. After all, what are the chances?

But it there’s anything she’d like to tell other students in Groningen, it’s this: ‘Get yourself some home insurance. Now.’

Chemeleon Maika


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