I could still smell the smoke. It lingered in my hair and clothes as the CTA train came to a stop at my station. A June breeze swept through the opening doors making the smell more apparent, a reminder of the day’s events. I never imagined when I locked my apartment door and left for work that beautiful Wednesday morning that I would unlock it later that day feeling so appreciative.
That morning, I responded to my first home fire as an intern at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. When the Disaster Services response van pulled up to the scene, the neighborhood appeared charming and quiet. The van blocked my view of the affected home, so I stepped from behind it and saw the devastation. My heart stopped. The front door and window frames were strewn across the front lawn. In the back yard, a young family stood staring up at their home, as calm as could be.
As I approached the mother, Nancy Buckles, she stepped forward to explain the morning’s events. At around 9:30, Nancy and her little daughter, Bella, went to the neighbor’s house for coffee. The persistent sound of a car horn from the street brought Nancy outside to see thick, heavy smoke hanging in the air surrounding her rented home on the south side of Chicago. Once we arrived at the scene, her husband John had returned from work and the emergency crews had left the scene.
Walking through the front door with the family, I saw where the fire began: a light fixture hanging by a damaged wire. Bad wiring caused the fire to start in the front hall and spread through the walls, completely consuming the rooms on the top floor of the house. Water poured from broken pipes in the ceiling flooding the floors. It was hard to believe that a few hours earlier this was someone’s living room, a safe haven. Bella ran up to her mother and asked why everything was burnt up. It was heartbreaking to see Nancy search for the right words to tell her daughter what had happened to all of her things.
Bella turned to me and said, “My fish made it out safe,” with a huge smile on her face. The family, including Bella’s fish, made it out unscathed. I could tell that this knowledge alone would see them through the disaster.
I walked down the hall to the stairwell and looked up. As I climbed, I noticed blue sky and sun shining through the wreckage where the roof used to be. The room at the top of the stairs held small pieces of evidence that this was a little girl’s bedroom. A small, broken purple chair, a tiny bed with princess sheets covered in ash and debris, and a pink story book were items that miraculously escaped the flames. As the Disaster Action Team provided the family with shelter, clothing and food, a fellow intern and I stood on the street with John taking in the scene in silence. I couldn’t imagine what the man standing next to me was feeling. After a few moments he broke the silence, “You know how they say hindsight is 20/20?” he asked. “All of the pieces are starting to come together. Some of the outlets didn’t work.”
His comment got me thinking. Hindsight really is 20/20, and regret is one of the worst possible emotions. You don’t want to look back and know you could have done something differently. A home fire can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. This is why it is so important to be Red Cross Ready. Everyone should Be Prepared by getting a kit, making a plan and taking a class to be ready in case a disaster occurs.
As I walked into my apartment that afternoon, it hit me. My home is where I come after a long day at work, where I feel safe and comfortable. A home is so much more than just walls or shelter, and losing something that meaningful is unimaginable.
To learn more visit: http://www.chicagoredcross.org/