Helping Victims of Fire Find “A New Normal”

By Jackie Nelson

“Terrible,” Cai said in English as she looked through her sooty and soaked belongings to try to find her mother’s prescriptions.  It would be the only direct exchange of words she and I would share today.

With her elderly parents, Cai Chen and her husband, Chai Tse, live in the first floor unit of a two-unit home in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport.   Red Cross Disaster Responders Jim McGowan and Roxy Trudeau helped the family figure out their next 48 hours with the help of Cantonese translator Kalina Pon. Pon decided to volunteer her time when she heard of the fire while at her child’s school in Chinatown that morning. Together, the disaster team figured out with Cai and Chai where the family would sleep, ensured prescriptions for her parents were on hand and made plans to launder their wet clothes and shoes.  While the second story of the home was destroyed in a fire in the middle of the night, Cai and Chai were able to salvage some of their belongings from their water-logged unit.

The family fled their home in the middle of the night in the same clothes they were wearing.  They had been on the curb for hours in the cold rain and 40 degree weather when the Red Cross  arrived in the morning, shortly after hearing they were in need.  The sound of hammering echoed from the roof where the board-up company worked in the rain to secure the home. A member of the disaster response team attempted to make contact with the family the night of the fire, but couldn’t get in touch with the family until the next morning. Before the Red Cross arrived, Cai’s mother walked to work in the wet slippers she had been wearing when she ran from the burning home.  She was eager to arrive at work on time to make sure the family’s income wasn’t affected when they faced the reality of having to replace most of their belongings. 

Cai and Chai are also eager to get back to work.  To do so, though, they needed something to eat after an exhaustive night, warm and dry clothes, and information about community partners and agencies that, like the Red Cross, will help them find their “new normal.”  They will need a new residence, replacement furniture and assistance in navigating next steps with their landlord and his insurance.

With the assistance they received from the Red Cross, they will stay tonight in a hotel in nearby Chinatown, close to where they will go back to work tomorrow. 

The Red Cross will continue to try to reach the resident in the upstairs unit to provide assistance, and we are now a step closer to finding him with additional information his neighbors were able to provide.  Also, a new disaster assistance note hangs on his door handle – this one translated into Cantonese by Kalina in hopes that he reaches out to the Red Cross for help.

We may not hear from him in a community so willing to help one another and rise above hardship.

In my four years with the Red Cross, I have grown used to seeing the things that are so personal to families like children’s favorite toys, small flags from the United States and other homeland countries, and school photos reduced to debris that sadly must be grieved and disposed of.  I am saddened by it, but accept is as part of the reality of unforgiving disasters.

What I haven’t grown used to yet is wondering what happens after we leave and when other agencies and communities step in to help.  I find comfort in knowing Cai, Chai and her parents will be OK for the next 48 hours, at least.  I appreciate that she looked at me and said to me “terrible” in English to be sure I understood.  Cai knew that it matters to us, too, to connect with the people we meet during disasters – that this connection is why we volunteer and walk through water-filled basements trying not to step on nails jutting up from collapsed ceilings and walls.

Roxy, Jim, Karina and I dispersed after our response and will likely never all work the same disaster again, given the hundreds of volunteers who respond in Chicago alone.  I probably will never meet the upstairs neighbor.  If anyone from the Red Cross meets him, it will be a different volunteer – whoever is on-call when he reaches out based on the information we left him. 

We will continue to wonder about his next 48 hours and hope that someone is there with him.  Time and time again within the Red Cross and throughout communities, people continue to show up, so it is likely he will find relief somehow.  Now that we have done what we can, I can only hope.

To find out how you can become a volunteer, donor, or learn how to reduce the risk of a fire in your home, visit

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