As a new Disaster Public Affairs volunteer with the American Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region I am eager to help whenever and wherever I’m needed. As a photographer it is my job to document how the Red Cross responds to and helps people recover from emergencies and disasters. In order to learn someone’s story, I first must listen and earn the respect and trust of people still processing what has happened to them.
I recently spent the day at the Red Cross shelter at a Salvation Army Community Center in San Francisco. Recent fires affected the people at the shelter–115 people lost their homes from major fires in the Mission, Tenderloin and Alamo Square neighborhoods the week of January 26, 2015.
I was sitting next to a man named Jimmy in the dinning hall. Jimmy was staying at the Red Cross shelter because he had lost everything in the Mission neighborhood four-alarm fire. I asked if he would be willing to tell me his story.
Rightfully so, he asked, “Why?” I said, “The fire was a big news story for a few days. Being in this room shows me it’s still important to tell others what happened. If you are willing to share your story, I will do my best to share it with others the way you want it told.” Slowly Jimmy started to tell his story about what happened to his father, Jorge, the day of the fire. As he was talking, his neighbor Elvis joined us and together they shared their story with me.
Jorge lived on the third floor of the multi-use apartment complex at the corner of 22nd and Mission Streets. When the fire occurred he ran out of his apartment and tried to escape. Unfortunately, the exits were blocked by the fire. Jorge pounded on the door of his neighbor, Elvis, to get help. Elvis had been asleep. If it wasn’t for Jorge pounding on the door, Elvis might have slept through the fire. When Elvis opened the door, he saw that Jorge’s hair, arms and face were badly burned. Elvis quickly extinguished the fire and thought of a way to get Jorge out of the complex. He took him to the fire escape and tried to lower the ladder. The ladder was jammed, so Elvis told Jorge to stay there until the fire department arrived. Elvis then went back into the burning apartment to save his roommate.
On his way, he pounded on another neighbor’s door. She was also asleep. He pounded and pounded until she woke up and quickly guided her to the fire escape. Elvis then went back for his roommate. When he got back to his apartment, it was already engulfed in flames. His roommate’s door was locked. He pounded and pounded and pounded on the door. He pounded so hard that he suffered burns. But his roommate didn’t answer because he had headphones on and his music was turned up. As the fire continued to spread, Elvis had no choice but to leave his apartment. Sadly, his roommate died.
As I listened for almost two hours to Elvis and Jimmy tell their stories I saw a change in their demeanor. I saw the tension in their faces lesson. Although sharing the story was sad and emotional for all of us, there seemed to be a sense of relief in sharing it.
Although I knew that Elvis and Jimmy had a safe place to sleep at the shelter and are working with trained Red Cross caseworkers to plan their next steps, I wanted to do more. Then I realized, sometimes the best thing any of us can do is listen.