Back when I was a single adult, I didn’t have enough to do with my time. Working full time, attending grad school part-time and keeping up my apartment? Not enough. So I also volunteered with my local Red Cross Disaster Team. One weekend a month I was on call. And holidays. As a single, I’d volunteer for the holidays so those with kids and lots of family could spend their time home.
So it was that in 1982 I was catching up on some sleep on Christmas Eve, when the expected phone call awoke me. The call to action, however, wasn’t a local house fire. An apartment building about 1.5 hours away had a major fire; the local unit was overwhelmed and needed help. Over 100 units were affected to varying degrees with residents coping with fire damage, smoke damage and water damage.
A dozen of us arrived at our downtown Cleveland office by 6 am., where we grabbed supplies and piled into 2 vans for long drive. The sun was rising as we pulled into the apartment parking lot.
We told the story: residents had left the fireproof doors from the lobby to their hallways open to make it easier for visitors to come and go; unfortunately, their lobby Christmas tree caught fire and without the doors working as resistance to ripped through parts of the building. Those lucky residents in halls where the firedoors were kept closed had nothing but some light smoke damage; the others lost significant amounts of their material lives.
We had a short organizational meeting in the complexes community center: the building had been gone over by a damage assessment team so we could tell people the extent of their damage; the apartment management was opening up any vacant apartments in other complexes to house those whose were not moving back anytime soon.
For the next 10 hours, I sat at table talking to people. After getting their apartment number, I’d check the map and tell them the extent of their damage. None of the residents had been allowed back in.
To most residents, it was relief to hear that they only had some water and light smoke damage. I gave them sheets explaining how to clean things. Their lives would recover soon.
Other were told that they had likely lost everything. The renters without insurance (and really? Who actually gets renter’s insurance?) were directed to charities for replacement furniture, to discount houses for clothing and household basics. We directed people to the places for new glasses and replacement prescriptions.
Many of the residents were thankful for the calm we provided, for the help, for the assurances. Some would try to argue that deserved more; we would explain that we had to follow guidelines.
One of my clearest memories was a young man who had placed an engagement ring under his girlfriend’s tree. The apartment was totalled. I made a note to have people keep an eye out for the ring, but I doubt it would ever be found.
After we worked, our director kindly took us all out for a holiday meal. The locals located a restaurant that happily served us. We sat at one large table like the extended family were that day, sharing a meal and retelling the stories of the day before heading back into our van for the ride home.
I think I got home about 11 pm. Christmas night. Turned on my own tree, poured myself a glass of eggnog and sat thankful that I could return to a normal life.