Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Everything, Gone." The Story of My First Fire Response

“Jeannie, borrow a t-shirt and a pair of jeans from someone. We’re going out with the DAT team.” Anxiety overcame me as I quickly jumped up and scrambled around looking for something I could wear other than what I wore to work today. It was my first disaster call with the Red Cross, and although I felt ready, I had no idea what to expect. After finding a pair of jeans, gym shoes and a t-shirt, I put on my Red Cross vest as Jackie, my boss, was preparing me for the disaster scene. She described to me the balance that is needed between trying to have the victims feel understood and doing our job to tell the Red Cross story, which includes securing photos and quotes from those whose lives were destroyed by a simple house fire.

As our Red Cross disaster services van pulled in front of the apartment, each of us were confused as to where the fire actually happened. A handful of tenants were outside the building when we pulled up, and we were at ease hearing that nobody got hurt, but the entire apartment seemed perfectly fine. From the outside, it was a six bedroom apartment building. On the inside, it was a disaster.

Broken glass, wooden pieces, and dripping water filled the stairway as we tried to squeeze past a couple people attempting to salvage any items of clothing that had the possibility of being worn again. The smell of chemicals, smoke, and water damage took over our bodies as we focused on trying to get up the stairs safely. As we reached what was left of the apartment, I realized I stepped on a Huggies diaper logo that was laid on the floor underneath the debris from the fire. To the left of it was a ruined baby carrier. It was terrifying.

The entire apartment was destroyed. The ceiling fans were melted downwards as if it was a flower waiting to open up its petals. The refrigerator, which seems so indestructible, was just a standing pile of garbage overflowing with unrecognizable items. The walls were torn down, and the ceiling had holes in it which frequently had more pieces falling. I couldn’t imagine how someone could work their whole lives for something, and have it all taken away from them in minutes.

Passion, the renter of the apartment, then walked through the door. She was completely overwhelmed and shocked by what used to have been her possessions, and what now was floating in puddles filled with garbage. Although I cannot understand what she is enduring, I felt her sorrow.

Passion’s neighbor Frankie, also a tenant in the building, said to me, “I am grateful nobody was sleeping. God was watching over us. It’s devastating when you lose everything you have. New furniture, gone. Memories that were in there, gone. Clothes. Everything, gone.”

-- By Jeannie Andresen, Marketing and Communications Intern at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago

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