By Jeanette DeForge [email protected]
Tuesday March 20, 2018
SPRINGFIELD - Most residents left homeless in the tragic fire that killed a man and two children Sunday morning are staying overnight in a city hotel and permanent housing has been arranged for nearly all displaced families.
The fire in the four-story building at 49 Belmont Ave. was first reported at about 7:20 a.m. When firefighters arrived people were jumping out of windows and residents reported three people were missing. Firefighters later searched and found the three dead, Fire Commissioner Bernard "BJ" Calvi said.
By Sunday evening three families were the only ones still searching for a place to live. Each was given options for new apartments and told to review them and decide if any will meet their needs, officials said.
The names of the three who died have not been released yet.
"We are working with each client to make sure they have a safe place for the next few days. That is a priority," said Mary Nathan, program director for the Pioneer Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Counselors met individually with each family to determine their needs and figure out how to help. Those who are likely to be displaced for some time were given a folder with information about housing options. Families were each given a small amount of money so they could buy basic necessities, she said.
While residents gathered to receive information, children were given toys and coloring books and played together.
Springfield was prepared to open a shelter for the residents, but the American Red Cross agreed to house families in hotels, which is better for people already dealing with the trauma of the fire and seeing neighbors killed and injured, said Helen R. Caulton-Harris, commissioner of health and human services for the city.
Making the decision to place people in hotel rooms temporarily was made easier when Paul Picknelly offered to rent rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn on Hall of Fame Avenue at discounted rate, Caulton-Harris said.
So far no fund has been established for victims of the fire but will likely be in the upcoming days, Caulton-Harris said.
People who want to help can also donate to the Pioneer Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, Nathan said.
One American Red Cross volunteer collected names of children and their schools for Caulton-Harris, who was working to provide uniforms for the children so they could return to school as soon as Monday.
"We want to begin to process of helping people resume as normal a life as possible and part of that for children is making sure they can return to school," she said.
The building is owned by LRS Realty, of Holyoke. By about 4 p.m. Russell Sabadosa, of one of the owners, told residents his company had a plumber, electrician and the gas company standing by ready to make repairs to the building so families whose apartments were not damaged by fire could return to their homes in a day or two.
"I don't know when we will have access to the building because this is an active investigation," he said.
Springfield Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal's office is searching for the cause of the fire. The state Medical Examiner's office and Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni is also involved with the investigation, officials said.
The blaze started on the second floor and quickly spread to the third floor after the fire caused a second-floor window to smash and high winds fanned the flames, Calvi said.
A total of 12 families will be able to return to their apartments by Monday if tradesmen can access the building soon to make repairs. There are four apartments that were badly damaged by fire and will need extensive repairs, Sabadosa said.
Alternative housing has been found for some of the remaining families who were displaced. For example, one of the families was already in the process of moving and had an apartment rented and another will be moved to an apartment in the building that was already vacant, Sabadosa said.
Working with other rental companies and apartment building owners, Sabadosa said his company has identified possible new homes for the three families who will be displaced for some time. Each of those families were given a packet with information about available apartments and were urged to review them to see if any fit their needs, he said.
Most people escaped the blaze with nothing more than what they were wearing. Several people were still wearing slippers and flip flops they had put on in haste while running from their homes.
Residents who had medications and other things they needed immediately were bused to the apartment complex and escorted by fire officials so they could retrieve the items, Sabadosa said.
Some of the hardest hit in the fire were six refugee families: Four are from Somalia, one from Congo and one from Myanmar. Many of those killed and injured were from those families, said Deirdre Griffin, new American's program director for Jewish Family Services.
"They are devastated, they are in shock and at the same time they are supporting each other in their communities," she said.
All of the families have been in the country for at least two years but many speak limited English and have cultural differences. While they are no longer official clients of Jewish Family Services, employees know the families and were assisting to ensure families understood how to get help, she said.