It was the smell of death, I thought to myself. I couldn’t get comfortable yesterday even after I was made aware that the immediate danger was over. That powerful and awkward smell kept bothering me even when we were trying to comfort and assist our clients.
The DAT (Disaster Action Team) was activated around 2:15 pm when dispatched called us and told us about the fire call on the South side of Chicago. Immediately, I got excited; I had been training for this day and finally it was here. I was going to be there with the Disaster respond team, assisting the American public in a real life emergency.
But little did I know what would happen next. The trip to the South side was pleasant, especially because the full responders that were there with me, inside the Red Cross truck. They were briefing me on the most common practices and procedures we were going to be performing. But upon our arrival, I was immediately impacted and it was not what you think it was. No, it was not the flames or destruction but rather the in-your face- strong smell of decaying wood destroyed by the fire. I have never smelled something remotely similar. It was a disgusting smell and one that is still lingered on the clothes I was wearing yesterday during our response.
After I got over my initial reaction to the smell, I watched how the full responders approached the burning building, talking to the neighbors and making their ways to our clients which were sitting on the steps in front of the small apartment building. My first impression was, wow- they are only wearing their pajamas. But when I got closer I was sadden to see the look on their faces. The look of confusion, of not believing that this is happening to them. They were quiet and they all had these solemn look on their faces, like they absolutely knew their lives were changed forever. It was hard to interrupt their train of thoughts. It was difficult mainly because you didn’t want to be another thing they have to deal with.
But we knew that we could help and that is why we came all this way to tell them. The Red Cross team prepares, trains and is ready twenty four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year for this type of disaster. Every time a disaster like this strikes, the Red Cross is there so you are not alone. And that is why we needed to interrupt their solemnest and try to find out what happened. But contrary to what I was expecting, they were happy to see us. I wish you could off seeing their faces, looking at us like if they been waiting for us all their lives, like if our red vests had encrypted on them a decoded message of hope, their faces just lighted up!
Soon we were there, talking to them, trying to understand the sequence of events. This was a very emotional part and they all had their own part of the story to tell. We were offering our compassion and support while trying to assess the situation at the same time. The owner of the apartment building told us how the fire started in the second floor of the house and how firefighters broke doors and windows to get them out. The mother was rejoiced that she was able to get her little baby out of the burning apartment with the help of the firefighters. And the owner of the building was very glad that because of the efficiency of the fire department, he was able to evacuate his two dogs out of the building’s basement on time.
I was relieved to learn that the family was saved. However, the house wasn’t that lucky. Upon our required inspection of the property, we were escorted by the fire department personnel. I felt we were walking into a dark tunnel, because there were no lights in this house- the firefighters have already turned all power down for safety and to avoid any more fires. We needed to be careful walking in top of the rubble and debris, making our way only with the light coming from our flashlights.
Inside the house water was dripping from all sides of the ceiling and the floor were starting to flood a little from the water the firefighters used to put out the fire. All of the house furniture was tainted by either smoke, water or fire and that was only the first floor. When we were finally allowed into the second floor to inspect if the clients clothes were salvageable I was furthered shocked. It was a complete disaster! Everything was gone, the only thing you could see from where I was standing was debris and burned wood. But among the debris you can still see the home that was no longer there, fragments of what were one day family portraits, a baby high chair, a Superman bedding, all the colors that make up a home, were now all, mutilated, violated by the violent flames.
It was then when our full responders decided that these families couldn’t stay in this house and that the Red Cross was going to help them. We asked the clients if they had a place to stay and they responded no. They said that no one wanted to welcome them in because of their large two dogs. So we told them not to worry. This is why the Red Cross is there, to assist families like this, that have lost everything and which have no place to go. These clients were given comfort kits with the necessary toiletries to take care of them for a few days. They also were given debit cards loaded with enough funds to allow them to stay in a hotel for two nights while they figure out what is next for them. They were also given money for food and clothing. The baby client got a Red Cross teddy bear to help him cope with the stress of having his life disrupted in such a devastating way (at such a young age) but also provisions were made to give his mom enough money for baby formula and other baby essentials. I was glad to be able to give him something to play with, something that didn’t had that disturbing smell.
Looking out the burned house was when it finally dawn on me, this could happen to me! This fire started like many others with some electrical malfunction causing a spark that ignited the fire. This family didn’t do anything wrong to deserve this, it just happened to them and it could also happen to you. Are you ready for such an event?
If not, there are many ways the Red Cross can help. We offer disaster preparedness classes, CPR and first aid certification and much more. You need to be ready, have a plan and get trained, don’t get caught by surprise.
I know that this experience have changed my life forever. I came back home from the fire and I wanted to fireproof all the houses of the people I love. Although I was unsuccessful on my task, I am definitely on it. I want to make sure we are preparing, preventing and getting trained for anything that life throws at us. Step one, getting a electrical inspection- mental note calling the electrician to make the appointment tomorrow.
What about you? Is your house fire proof?