Coatesville Fire Response, through my eyes

a kiss for Savannah

It was 11pm Monday night and I had just settled my 4 month old little girl down for her long night shift of sleep, and handed off monitoring duty of our three year old, who is going through a spell of waking in the night, to my husband, as he stays up a little later than me. It was time for bed, after another long 16 hour day. Little did I know what was to come.

At 1:30am my “bat phone” rang. This is the Red Cross phone. I was serving as “PR on call” for the night and this was “the call”. There was a large fire burning in Coatesville with fatalities, injuries and rooftop rescues. Many people were displaced and our DAT volunteers were on the way. The phone woke the 4 month old, but I calmed her down and handed her off to my husband while I took down the pertinent information. After waking my director to let him know what was going on, it was decided that I would head out to the scene…. I only live about 20 minutes away.

500 block of Chestnut Street active scene approximately 2:45am

When I arrived on scene at about 2:30am, it was pretty chaotic and pouring down rain. But our volunteers were doing all they could to comfort people who had been through a traumatic incident. I was touched by their dedication. One married couple who serve Chester County were on the scene. It was their second response of the night and neither had been to bed, but you would never have known it by the way they continued to serve the mission in a pleasant manner. They inspire me.

Half of the displaced from the fire huddled on a porch of an adjacent building were Mexican and spoke only Spanish. We relied on an interpreter and the children in the crowd to help us communicate the best we could for the time being. Our volunteers took names, handed out snacks, offered blankets, hugs and pats on the back.

I gathered the information that I could from those taking names and making lists and found out we had at least 31 people who would need a place to stay… two more were at the hospital being checked out, but they would likely return and need our help as well… that made 33 and 12 of them were children. One was 7 weeks old…. another just 15 months and the same size as my 4 month old back at home (she’s a beast). It broke my heart, as a mom, to see these kids huddled in their parent’s arms, dressed in their pajamas looking up at their destroyed homes.

I kept my head in the game and watched for the media to show up. I tweeted, I emailed, called to check in with my director and took photos. I kept up on the latest information and was ready when the media did arrive, call, or tweet me back. I stood in the rain for numerous interviews and facilitated a statement from the fire chief for the cameras that were on scene. I was live at 6am with one station…. and stuck around to make sure the morning reporters had the latest information.

During all of that, the decision was made that we would open a shelter a few blocks away. More volunteers had arrived and were working with officials to get keys to the building, supplies from a trailer and get the shelter set up. The residents waited patiently. We were told they would be able to go into their homes to grab some belongings two at a time. It was relatively quiet amongst the porch dwellers. You could hear the loud noise of the fire trucks, a back-up beeping from time to time and the rain and wind. The weather seemed to be getting worse. One of our volunteers grabbed trash bags to hand out to the crowd. It was something they could use put their belongings in when they went into their homes. The volunteers reminded everyone to gather the ESSENTIALS like medications, eye glasses, identification…. things like that.

As the families came out of the burned building with bags full, we worked with the local police to transport them to the community center, which was now set up and ready to accept people. A young officer made numerous trips in his cruiser back and forth until everyone was accounted for.

By this time, the sun was beginning to rise, but the folks were ready for some sleep, so it was lights out at the shelter. I helped hand out some blankets. It’s not my job in disaster response, but I can’t help myself… Seeing little kiddos curled up on Red Cross cots touches my heart and I want them to be as comfy as possible. I gathered the information I needed from those signing folks into the shelter and headed back to the scene to update the media… I wanted to keep the media on scene happy with information from me so everyone could sleep at the shelter.

After the morning news, the second shift of reporters began to arrive, but I needed a break. It was 7am and I was going on 2 hours of sleep and no food. I offered to take the volunteer who hadn’t slept at all home as she and her husband had brought the ERV to the scene and they had no way of getting home. It was out of my way, but the least I could do.

I checked in with the director on my way home and we decided to touch base after I napped.

About 10am or so, I was up again after a maybe 2 hour power nap…. the baby wanted me and my phone started ringing again. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to get any more sleep. I fed the baby, hugged her tight, grabbed some breakfast, kissed my amazing husband and headed back to the scene.

Our vehicles outside of the shelter

By the time I got there, I’d be on my 3rd shift of reporters, and the fire scene would be boarded up… a few stuffed animals placed at the bottom of the steps in memory of the mother and child who lost their lives…  it was surreal.

I was also amazed by the efficiency in the shelter. Volunteers had served breakfast and lunch was on the way. Kids were playing nicely with stuffed animals we handed out and eating popsicles. They were in good spirits after a short night and their parents were doing a great job of staying calm. Caseworkers had arrived on scene to help with the work of transitioning the families to the next location. We had a language barrier, but plenty of folks from Chapter who spoke Spanish were on hand helping to bridge that gap. I was impressed by the resiliency of the folks in need and the dedication and compassion of the Red Crossers there to respond.

We faced obstacles along the way, of course… including a run to the store to buy car seats so we could safely transport families to a nearby hotel and dealing with close quarters and that pesky language barrier.. but in the end, we were able to assist 33 people. We gave them lodging, food, clothing, counseling… and a caseworker to contact for follow up needs. We helped refill prescriptions and even called in our friends at Red Paw to help with a bird and a cat.

It’s not every day that my work is dedicated to the mission like it was this day, but I do cherish these glances at what the Red Cross is all about. My heart aches for those we’re helping, but on responses like these I wonder what if the Red Cross hadn’t been there? Where would these folks have gone? Would they have huddled into cars for the night? Maybe curled up on that porch or tried to get back into their damaged and unsafe homes? The Red Cross was there to alleviate that suffering. We answered that question and put some smiles back on some faces. It’s nice to be able to witness this… but I wish we didn’t have to.

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